2017 Volleyball Coach of the Year: Robinson found the right pieces to the puzzle for Warren County

Dorinda Robinson Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Warren County High School’s volleyball team had the makeup of a champion heading into the 2017 season. Head coach Dorinda Robinson just had to locate the winning formula somewhere within.

That meant some of the Wildcats would need to make sacrifices. Lauren Fox, for example, had been a lifelong outside hitter but was moved to the middle prior to the start of the season. In another situation, senior Britney Carter was limited to the front row all season long despite playing all the way around on her travel volleyball team.

Those types of moves were made in the interest of finding the best way to maximize the efficiency in Warren County’s system, and all of the Wildcats, Robinson said recently, played their necessary role.

“It’s like having a puzzle,” Robinson, The Northern Virginia Daily’s 2017 Volleyball Coach of the Year, said, “you have to put the pieces in the right spot, and I think I was able to put the pieces in the right spot to get us to where we ended up.”

Where the Wildcats ended up was at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center in Richmond, playing against Lord Botetourt on the final day of the high school season for the title of VHSL Class 3 state champion.

Warren County was swept in that state title match on Nov. 18, but 2017 was nonetheless a historic season for the Wildcats,  who had never before appeared in a state tournament, much less played for a state championship.

The Wildcats finished the season with a record of 21-5, won 17 matches in a row over the season’s second half and didn’t lose a match to fellow Class 3 competition until the state final. They won the Class 3 Northwestern District to claim the program’s first district title since 2003, and the Wildcats’ Region 3B tournament championship was the first in program history.

Warren County, obviously, was talented. Junior outside hitter Kaley Foulks smashed 403 kills over the course of the season and was named first team all-state. Carter and Fox, a junior, complemented their star teammate with 189 and 154 kills, respectively, and junior setter Morgan Coons set everything in motion while dishing out 818 assists.

Senior Chelsea Ruffner went from a back-row substitution player in 2016 to the Wildcats’ starting libero this past season. Classmate Nikki Roof, while not one to fill up the stat sheet, was a solid all-around player who thrived defensively, Robinson said, and 6-foot-1 senior Cor’shauna Cunningham was an imposing figure at the net.

But more important than the team’s talent, Robinson said, was the Wildcats’ camaraderie, a trait built around its daily mantra – “believe in yourself, trust your teammates and play for each other.”

“There were games where we were not perfect,” said Robinson, whose team won in three sets in 18 of its 21 victories in 2017. “We had our breakdowns here and there, whether it would be serve-receive or a little bit on the defensive end, but we always managed to stay together and pull things out and win, because we stayed together and we didn’t give up on each other. We believed that we could finish it.”

The bond that rested at the heart of Warren County’s success in 2017 actually took root last season, when Robinson made it a priority to institute team activities away from the volleyball court to instill a family atmosphere. The Wildcats stuck to that formula this season – Robinson asked the team to send photos of themselves doing some type of team bonding activity on a weekly basis, she said – and needed little push from their head coach to do so.

Foulks said she and her 2017 teammates “genuinely like each other,” adding that their friendships don’t end when they step off the court. On the court, that bond showed.

“This group was just a special group from the very beginning, just in their closeness,” Robinson said. “We had our banquet the other night and I expressed that the seniors, it was their team but they never put themselves above everybody else. It was still the team, it was still Warren County. And it was just a good group to work with. It was just different. I’ve coached for many, many years, and the bond this team had was special, and I’m hoping next year that they can get that same bond and continue because the team that likes hanging out together, I think, will play a lot better together.”

Warren County will lose a quartet of seniors as the Wildcats prepare to follow up on the program’s most accomplished campaign next season but does return a group of experienced players that includes Foulks, Fox and Coons, three of the four key pieces to the Wildcats’ powerful offense.

“We’re definitely coming in next year with high expectations again,” Robinson said. “We’re losing four seniors that are gonna be hard to replace. I’ve got a good six returning, good core returning, plus pulling up a few of the JV players. I think next year looks good. Getting to the state championship again? Who knows? It’s possible. We’re excited.”