Road Trip: Wildcats step away from home for state semifinal matchup with Southampton

Warren County coach Dorinda Robinson and Britney Carter celebrate along the sidelines during a match in Strasburg earlier this season. The Wildcats travel to Southampton for the VHSL Class 3 state semifinals on Tuesday. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Home certainly has been sweet for Warren County High School’s volleyball team down the stretch of the 2017 season, but if the Wildcats are to win their biggest match to date, they will have to do so on their first trip outside of Front Royal in over a month.

Warren County makes the long trek to Courtland for a VHSL Class 3 state semifinal matchup with Southampton at 6 p.m. this evening in a match that will pit a pair of streaking teams against each other for the right to take part in Saturday’s state championship game at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The Wildcats, fresh off a state quarterfinal win over Park View (South Hill) this past Saturday, have won 16 straight matches, but the last seven of those have come at home. Warren County’s last road game was a cross-town jaunt to Skyline on Oct. 17. You have to go back to an Oct. 12 match at Manassas Park for the Wildcats’ last true road trip.

“It changes things a lot,” Wildcats head coach Dorinda Robinson said after practice on Monday evening. “We try to keep a close schedule to what we normally would, when we eat, get there, but it’s gonna change things. We’re not gonna have as big a home crowd. We will have our usual travel people there but nothing like what we had on Saturday. And it does mean a lot to the girls to see that big home crowd.”

How the Wildcats (20-4) handle the 3 ½-hour bus ride to Southampton (27-2) could go a long way toward determining their fate on this evening. Seniors Britney Carter and Chelsea Ruffner each said the Wildcats plan to take movies and music along for the ride, while also using the time to relax and continue building the bond that has powered Warren County to the most successful season in program history.

Warren County's Nikki Roof goes up for a kill over Culpeper's Dana Stover and Claire Shorb during the Region 3B volleyball tournament semifinals on Nov. 2 in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily

“We wanna be excited when we walk in there,” Carter said. “We don’t wanna walk in there tired and look not ready to play. We wanna walk in there and show them that we are ready to play and we are excited to play.”

Tuesday’s state semifinal matchup will be the first such game for either program. Southampton, like Warren County, won its first-ever regional title earlier this month with a 3-0 victory over Park View in the Region 3A championship on Nov. 7. Southampton beat Park View – a fellow Tri-Rivers District school and the only common opponent with Warren County – in all four meetings this season.

Excluding the Endless Summer High School Tournament on Sept. 16, during which Southampton went 3-2 in five best-of-3 matches, the Lady Indians are 24-0 and have lost just four sets all season, two of those to Park View.

Warren County’s own impressive run has included its first district title since 2003 and its first-ever state tournament appearance. The Wildcats have thrived by keeping things loose, and though the stakes are higher than ever, neither Ruffner nor Carter said they thought nerves would be a problem Tuesday night.

“There’s no sense of nervousness but there’s a sense of excitement. I think it’s excitement overall because nobody’s ever went this far, so now that we have we wanna keep pushing so we can get the banner up there,” Carter said, pointing to the space on of the Warren County gymnasium walls reserved for state championship banners.

“It can be (hard to keep those nerves in check),” Ruffner added, “but I think we’re more excited than nervous, because if you’re nervous you’re scared, and we don’t wanna go in scared.”

What little the Wildcats have learned about Southampton has told them they need to be aware of Lady Indians senior Emma Drake. The 6-foot-1 middle hitter is nearing 400 kills this season and has over 1,000 for her career and was named the Tri-Rivers District Player of the Year.

Ruffner, who has a team-high 266 digs this season as the Wildcats’ libero, said successfully defending Drake would come down to communication.

“We all know where we’re supposed to be on the court, as long as we just keep going and just keep in good spirit. That’s the way we’ve been winning,” Ruffner said.

“During warm-ups we’ll watch them and feel them out, get the vibe. … We’ve always prepared ourselves, and if we’re not we always somehow prepare ourselves,” she added with a laugh.

Warren County boasts plenty of firepower of its own on offense, which begins with junior setter Morgan Coons (755 assists). Junior outside hitter Kaley Foulks (382 kills this season) – the Region 3B Player of the Year – leads a trio of 100-kill hitters that includes Carter (173) and junior Lauren Fox (137).

“I think from the very beginning it will be getting the jitters under control, and then after a couple points if we can settle down and control our game, (make) good passes,” Robinson said of the keys to the semifinal matchup. “It all starts, it has always started, with the passing game. We have to be on in the passing game so we can let our setter do her job and let our hitters do their job.”

As Warren County now sits within one win of reaching the Class 3 state championship match, Robinson said one word best describes the Wildcats to this point – confident.

“They feel confident in their abilities. They feel confident as a team that they can get the job done. It’s just confidence right now,” Robinson said. “They believe they can do it.”