FRONT ROYAL — Erika Berry has battled it for years.
Skyline’s volleyball team has never been associated with a winning culture, an issue that Berry has harped on frequently during her six seasons as the Hawks’ head coach. It’s not a problem exclusive to the volleyball program — Skyline’s baseball, boys basketball and football coaches have all spoken in recent years of building a winning brand within their respective programs — but it’s an unsettling one for Berry nonetheless.
Exploring that topic again last week, Berry said the problem lies in the mental toughness of the players, who often simply don’t know “how to win,” a product of the losing seasons that have piled up for the volleyball program.
It’s for that reason that the 2019 campaign was such a crucial one for the Hawks. Berry knew heading into the season that the teams around them had lost some major contributors and knew that her Hawks had the pieces in place to win some matches. They just needed to capitalize on that opportunity with confidence, and Berry said she spent the season drilling it into her players that “this is your time.”
“That was a big conversation all season, and I always tell them, we ride this roller coaster and we ride it up and down, let’s stay on the top of it and keep riding up,” Berry said. “And I think that they bought into it, really fed into it, and once you start winning and they’re seeing possibilities, it changes the climate on the team. And that’s something that we really needed desperately for years.”
Skyline’s volleyball team struggled through 12 straight losing seasons since the school opened in 2007. The streak ended there, as the Hawks finished 2019 with an 11-10 record to earn their first winning season in program history.
A month after her team’s season ended in the Region 3B tournament quarterfinals, Berry, the Northern Virginia Daily’s 2019 Volleyball Coach of the Year, said the winning campaign was a relief “just to finally feel it.”
“As a coach there’s been many years and seasons when you’re like ‘OK, we can do this, we can do this,’ but it’s literally me talking to a brick wall trying to convince that brick wall that we’re gonna win,” Berry said. “But the seniors this year, they’ve been together, they felt those losses, and then you’re bringing on all those new faces, and they’re young. They responded so well with it and it worked and I’m proud of them for sticking it out and sticking together and just molding even the younger ones. Seeing six of them leave (due to graduation) this year, it’s like I just wish I could hold onto them for a little bit longer. It’s definitely gonna be rough, but they definitely left their mark with the kids that are left.”
On the court, Berry said Skyline went back to the basics this season and emphasized serving and passing in practice while letting the hitting aspect of the offense come later. But the quest for a winning season required a much deeper dive into the overall psyche of the team.
Berry said the Hawks did a lot of reading and discussion as a group. Skyline also got into the practice of finding three positive things, two negative things and one takeaway from each match, which Berry said generated some interesting feedback and encouraged honest communication, something Skyline’s players needed to do more of to become successful on the court.
“Yes, we did a lot of work on the court but when they come to volleyball season, they know that I’m gonna make them talk and we’re gonna analyze and we’re gonna look at situations,” Berry said. “And we’ve even had like team journals where they write back and forth. So if it wasn’t gonna happen on the court, I needed them to at least mentally feel that they were gonna be successful, and I think that that really changed the atmosphere.”
Skyline had some physical talent, as well.
Senior middle hitter Aaliyah Chunn smashed 171 kills to go along with 51 blocks and 43 aces en route to earning Player of the Year honors in the Class 3 Northwestern District and Region 3B and a spot on the Class 3 all-state first team.
Senior outside hitter Alli Haffer (116 kills, 34 aces), senior setter Adrianne Kinsey (232 assists, 53 kills, 45 aces) and sophomore outside hitter Kyra Whitmore (64 kills, 35 aces, team-high 132 digs) each were named second team all-district.
Berry said junior Madison Schmitz was expected to be one of the Hawks’ “heavy hitters” this season but was limited by an injury, which opened the door for freshman Ashton Spiker. Berry added that senior outside hitter Jenna Stanley and sophomore setter Emma Benson, like Spiker, rose to fill more prominent roles in Skyline’s lineup.
That was the advantage of Skyline keeping 14 players on both the varsity and junior varsity squads, a high number that Berry said extended out of her comfort zone in a sport that only allows a team to put six players on the court at a time.
“The good part of that was the opportunity that we had for so many choices,” Berry said of the large roster. “If somebody was having a rough night, we always had somebody else that could replace them or shine in other ways. Alli’s a big one in that she’s never played back row, and then all the sudden OK, you’re gonna be a main back-row player and now we can use you there. It really showed strengths in the girls where we hadn’t seen that before. But I think that they really embraced their weaknesses.
“Looking at that team now, would I have said that that’s where we would’ve been at the end of the season? No, but I think that the emotion and the bond that they had, I mean they could drive each other.”
An 11-win regular season highlighted by an upset of eventual district champ George Mason at home in mid-October earned Skyline the third seed in the Region 3B tournament. The Hawks went one-and-done in the playoffs, however, as they were swept by No. 6 Independence, which went on the reach the Class 3 state quarterfinals.
“It was a really great group of girls,” Berry said. “They meshed well together. They made my job a lot easier, and it was enjoyable. We just talked all season like ‘it’s going so fast,’ and it’s going so fast because we haven’t had that drama or those issues arise. They worked hard and it’s been exciting that we’ve already had open gyms and they’re still coming. So they’re ready. Just excited to see what it continues to be.”
Losing six seniors means Skyline will be young in 2020, a fact Berry has already discussed with her players.
“It’s exciting to build with but we can either continue on our winning streaks and know that we’re gonna have to work hard for it, or we’re gonna go into that ugly losing hole that nobody wants to be. And it’s not fun for anybody. It’s not fun for me, it’s not fun for them and they don’t like losing,” Berry said. “So just figuring out a way to manage those and just be smart about what we’re replacing.”