Wildcats aiming to put stamp on banner year in volleyball state finals

FRONT ROYAL – There’s a spot on the wall inside the gymnasium at Warren County High School reserved for the teams that have reached or won state championships, and in that spot are four banners.

Two celebrate the Wildcats’ back-to-back softball championships in 1984 and 1985. The other two mark runner-up finishes for the baseball program (1978) and theater (2016). Soon a new maroon banner will adorn the wall, emblazoned with the words “Volleyball 2017” in white lettering. Whether that banner also includes the word “runner-up” will be determined on this afternoon.

The most successful season in Warren County volleyball history has reached its final stop, as the Wildcats get set to take on unbeaten Lord Botetourt in the VHSL Class 3 state championship finals at 3 p.m. Saturday at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center in Richmond.

One of those two volleyball teams will hoist its first state championship trophy.

“When we won (the Region 3B tournament) that was our No. 1 thing. We wanted a banner up on the wall,” Wildcats junior outside hitter Kaley Foulks said following practice on Thursday. “We honestly never thought we’d get this far in states. I’m not surprised that this team has because we’re really good, but we never thought at the beginning of the season that we’d make it to states. Either way we’re gonna get a banner on the wall, but it would be awesome if that banner didn’t say ‘runner-up.'”

The Wildcats (21-4) have already won their first district championship since 2003 and their first regional title in program history. To add a state championship to that list, they will need to do what no other team has been able to do against Lord Botetourt this season – beat the Cavaliers.

Lord Botetourt, the Blue Ridge District and Region 3D champ, enters Saturday’s state finals a perfect 30-0 this fall. The Cavaliers have swept 27 of those 30 matches and have lost only four games all season.

Only one team – James River (Buchanan), a Class 2 state semifinalist this season – pushed Lord Botetourt to five sets, and the Cavaliers swept defending state champ Hidden Valley five times this season, including in Tuesday’s other Class 3 state semifinal.

Like Warren County, the Cavaliers are making their first state championship appearance, though Lord Botetourt did reach the state quarterfinals in 2009.

“We know that they’re gonna have some big hitters, so we worked on our defense a little bit, especially our net defense,” Wildcats head coach Dorinda Robinson said. “I just told them that we’re gonna play a good team. But then the other team’s also playing a good team. We earned the right to be there and we can play with anybody.

“Offensively we can swing with anyone,” she added. “I think the game’s gonna be won on the defensive aspect of the game. And whoever makes the least mistakes.”

The Wildcats won’t be lacking confidence when they hit the court inside the Siegel Center on Saturday afternoon. They enter the game riding a 17-match winning streak and emerged from a 200-mile trip to Courtland to knock off Southampton – another team that was unbeaten in standard best-of-3 matches this season – in four sets in Tuesday’s semifinal.

“We’re getting ready to expect a good team, but we’re a good team,” said Foulks, the Region 3B Player of the Year. “I don’t think that (Lord Botetourt) being undefeated should really make us feel any more nervous than any of our other games.”

The firepower is there for the Wildcats – Foulks has 395 kills this season, while senior Britney Carter and junior Lauren Fox have 181 and 150 kills, respectively, and junior setter Morgan Coons is closing in on 800 assists.

Robinson said the state championship could be won on the defensive side and how the Wildcats handle a Lord Botetourt offense led by sophomore Miette Veldman – the Blue Ridge District Player of the Year – and her older sister, Lara.

Warren County’s defense – led by Fox at the net and senior libero Chelsea Ruffner – was sound in Tuesday’s semifinal, Robinson said, but she added that the Wildcats have had some inconsistent play on that end this season.

“Sometimes it’s good and sometimes we’re slow,” Robinson said. “It being the last game you’re gonna play for the season, you’ve just gotta leave it all on the court. Whatever it takes to keep the ball up.”

How the Wildcats’ handle the environment could be just as important. Asked if she’s played out the experience of competing in a state title match in her head, Ruffer replied, “Absolutely, and every time I think about it, it’s so overwhelming.”

Foulks said she’s played in one college arena before – Virginia Tech’s Cassell Coliseum – and was awed by the “immensity” of playing in such an environment. She added that a large traveling fan base (Warren County is sending a charter bus full of fans to Richmond, Foulks said) would help ease the Wildcats’ nerves.

Regardless, Robinson said Saturday’s match would be “very emotional.”

“I tried to explain to the girls that you’re gonna be stepping into a place that’s very huge, that’s not like a high school gym, and it’s just gonna be an overwhelming experience,” she said. “But it needs to be one that you embrace, that you just soak it all up, because who knows if you’ll ever get here again. Enjoy the chance that you have, make the best of it.”