Wildcats ‘ready to go back’ after reaching volleyball state title game last season

Warren County's Lauren Fox bumps the ball during a volleyball match against Riverside last season. The Wildcats reached the VHSL Class 3 state championship game in 2017 and are aiming to return to the state tournament this season. Rich Cooley/Daily file

FRONT ROYAL – The 2017 volleyball season was the best Warren County’s had in its program’s history. The Wildcats are now tasked with figuring out how to do it all over again, and perhaps even take things a step further in 2018.

Warren County hit the practice court for the first time last week fresh off a season in which the Wildcats marched all the way to the VHSL Class 3 state championship game, where they fell to Lord Botetourt in three sets. The 2017 season also included the Wildcats’ first-ever regional title and its first district championship in 14 seasons.

The Wildcats return a strong core of that talented squad, and as head coach Dorinda Robinson said on Tuesday afternoon, “they’re ready to go back” to the Siegel Center in Richmond to take another crack at winning the team’s first state title.

“They understand what’s expected and they also know that we kind of have a target on our backs,” Robinson said. “Other teams around us wanna beat us because we were so successful last year. I don’t think (the Wildcats’ players are) taking it any differently. I think they’re still embracing the whole fact that what we did last year was so great and they just wanna keep it going. We’ve got a great group of seniors. They just want it to continue.”

As far as expectations go, Robinson said not much has changed internally. Warren County’s primary expectation, she said, has always centered on players giving their best effort. But some of the Wildcats’ veterans agree that there is a different feeling surrounding the preseason this month given the team’s recent accomplishments.

Warren County's Kaley Foulks (11) returns to lead a Wildcats team seeking a return trip to the state tournament in 2018. Rich Cooley/Daily file

Senior setter Morgan Coons said the team’s expectations have “upped a lot” as they enter 2018, adding that the team’s newcomers have been made aware of where the Wildcats hope to end up later this season. Senior outside hitter Lauren Fox noted that Warren County is “a little more motivated” than in years past, as the Wildcats are eager to prove that 2017’s run “wasn’t just a one-time thing, that we have the talent to do it again.”

The Wildcats know a lot of eyes will be on them, eager to see how they follow up last season’s state tournament run.

“I think (coach) Robinson’s made it very clear from the beginning of the season that she does have high expectations for us,” Wildcats senior outside hitter Kaley Foulks said about handling new pressure, “but it’s not like we’re going into practice and getting killed every day. We’re still having fun, but we can still stay serious at the same time. It’s hard for us to not think that we’re gonna go as far as we did last year because, I mean, it’s hard not to think about having like the parade that came through here and the charter buses, all that stuff. It’s definitely something to work towards now that we know how far we can get.”

Warren County returns six players from last year’s team, Robinson said, and those six – led by Foulks, an all-state pick and Region 3B Player of the Year who smashed 403 kills last season – will be the driving force behind the team’s success this fall. The Wildcats do have some holes to fill, however.

Four seniors graduated from the 2017 squad, including middle hitter Britney Carter, who ranked second on the team with 189 kills last year; Cor’shauna Cunningham, who at 6-foot-1 was an imposing figure at the net; starting libero Chelsea Ruffner and Nikki Roof.

The Wildcats return plenty of firepower with Foulks and Fox (who tallied 154 kills as the third piece in Warren County’s trio of primary attackers in 2017), and Coons will remain a key cog in the team’s offense after dealing out 818 assists in 26 matches last year.

Robinson said she hopes Warren County can find a third hitter to complement Foulks and Fox this fall, a role that likely will fall to junior middle hitter Brianna Hogan.

“Bri Hogan is gonna step up this year,” Robinson said. “She’s strong; she’s got a lot of physical ability, so she’s gonna anchor down the middle. I think she will make a little bit of noise in there. She’ll get her swings, and she’ll get her points. Jayda Saulsbury is playing on the outside behind Kaley as far as that hitting spot goes. She’s not a power hitter like Kaley; she’s more of a placement-type hitter, so she’ll be helping us a lot.”

Coons and Foulks agreed that the Wildcats find comfort in the experience they return at the team’s offensive positions, and Coons added that she got the chance to work with some of the team’s newcomers during open gym sessions over the summer.

“They have to understand that they’re stepping into a big role,” Coons said of the varsity team’s new arrivals. “Britney had a very big role on our team last year as a middle hitter. Lauren’s coming off an injury right now, so she’s not 100 percent. Bri has really stepped it up a lot, and she knows exactly what’s expected of her, and everyone’s just kind of filling in. They’re understanding we have big things to do, so we have to adjust and figure out exactly what we’re doing now before it gets too late.”

Robinson added that senior Nicole Sayre would take over as Warren County’s starting libero, and Sydney Nalls, the only freshman on the roster, could work her way into a starting role as Cunningham’s replacement.

The Wildcats, who scrimmaged at Spotsylvania on Thursday, open the 2018 season on Aug. 21 at Millbrook, a team that, like Warren County, is coming off its program’s best season after reaching the Class 4 state semifinals last year.

Robinson said that in Class 3 Northwestern District competition, Manassas Park and Culpeper County could pose the biggest challenges to the Wildcats. Warren County, which went 21-5 in 2017, did not lose a match to Class 3 competition last season until the state championship game.

“We had a really good season last year, so we really wanna go back to where we were, and we’ve really stepped up our practices,” Fox said. “We’ve gone from like doing two-hour practices to right now, since we don’t have school, three-hour practices, just trying to get – we have a lot of new girls on the team – trying to get everyone on the same page and make sure we’re working together with the same efficiency that we were last year.”