James Wood volleyball sweeps Millbrook for state tourney berth

WINCHESTER — There probably haven't been too many instances this year where the James Wood volleyball team didn't lead at any juncture for the first 30 points of a match.

The number of energetic stretches of dominance that James Wood has generated is incalculable, though. And on Thursday, two massive runs helped the Colonels set the stage for a rare feat against their biggest rival.

James Wood — the top seed in the Region 4D North — beat No. 2 North Millbrook for the third time in three meetings this year in Thursday's Region 4D semifinals at Shirley Gymnasium. The defending Class 4 state champion Colonels swept the Pioneers by the scores of 25-16, 25-16, 25-22 to earn their second straight state tournament berth.

James Wood closed out the first set with an 11-1 run and the second set with an 8-1 burst. The Colonels then staved off a late Millbrook (18-4) push in the third set, a game in which they wiped out their only deficit (3-2) with a 5-0 run.

James Wood (23-2) will host Region 4D's No. 2 South seed Blacksburg (17-5) at 5 p.m. on Saturday in the region championship. The Bruins swept No. 4 South seed Jefferson Forest by the scores of 30-28, 25-14, 28-26 in Thursday's other semifinal. The winner of Saturday's match will host Region 4C runner-up Loudoun County on Nov. 11 in the Class 4 state quarters, while the loser will travel to Region 4C champ Rock Ridge that day.

The Colonels are now 5-1 against Millbrook the last two years, and Thursday marked the first time James Wood has swept the Pioneers in that stretch. James Wood senior setter Hannah McCullough (15 assists Thursday) said she's never played on any team that has swept the Pioneers in her four years of high school volleyball, but that was the goal on Thursday.

"We were like, 'Of course we want to beat Millbrook, but we beat them in five [sets on Sept. 12], four [sets on Sept. 28], and now, we want a sweep,'" she said. "We want a three-set sweep all the time."

The Pioneers won the first set in their last matchup, and they looked like they could possibly do it after leading for most of the first 30 points on Thursday, including 10-6 at one point. But with the score 15-14 Millbrook inside a packed Shirley Gymnasium, James Wood scored a point that made the Colonels fans and the players on the court explode.

Millbrook did well to prevent a blast from outside hitter Kennedy Spaid from hitting the floor, but the return from the back row popped back over the net. Middle hitter Ashlynn Spence pounced with her own thunderous spike, and this one hit the floor to tie the set at 15. Spence roared and her teammates celebrated with her, with Spaid coming in particularly close to congratulate Spence.

Sometimes a play like that becomes a mere footnote, but in this case it was the start of something much bigger. It started a run of seven straight points that included back-to-back aces from Spaid (match-high 13 kills, six digs, three aces). A kill by Millbrook's Aaliyah Green made it 21-16 Colonels, but James Wood scored the next four points to take the set, with back-to-back aces from Spence closing it out.

"That was just the energy shift," said Spence (match-high five aces) of her kill to tie the set at 15. "We were like, 'We've got to go now or never.' We just pushed from there and won that set."

In the second set, James Wood saw Millbrook whittle a 15-9 Colonels lead to 17-15. But Paige Ahakuelo (15 assists, nine kills, seven digs) set up Brenna Corbin (nine kills, 12 digs, three blocks) for a kill to kick off an 8-1 run. The last six points of the set went to James Wood, with Ahakuelo starting that run with a pretty back flick while on the run that landed for a kill. McCullough delivered an ace on set point.

The beauty of James Wood is that you never know what type of play can spark a stretch of dominance, or which player will make something happen to start an avalanche of points.

"Multiple people had those kinds of points when we needed them to shift the energy," Colonels coach Adrienne Patrick said. "If one person on the team is down, the rest of the people on the team pick them up. That ability was really evident tonight."

Millbrook stayed within striking distance for most of the third set, but with the score 20-18 Corbin started a 4-1 run with a kill. The Pioneers answered with a 3-0 spurt that concluded with a kill by Camdyn Lockley, but Ahakuelo closed it out with a kill down the left sideline to set a series of hugs among the James Wood players.

"I came in here nervous. I was freaking out [Wednesday] night," Spence said. "But then I got on the court [Wednesday] and I realized I had my teammates. They were all going to help me, and I was going to help them. To come in and sweep [Millbrook] on our home court is crazy. It's just a good feeling."

For the Pioneers, there was sadness at seeing their season end, and some frustration that they didn't play closer to the way they're capable. Millbrook had not been swept by anyone in posting a 39-7 mark the last two seasons.

"We just made way too many errors," said Millbrook senior outside hitter Gracie Behneke. "It kind of was a disappointing loss, just because it feels like we beat ourselves. They had some great plays and they scored with some great balls, but it was just way too many errors on our part."

Millbrook coach Carla Milton said after Tuesday's win over Sherando that the Pioneers have had trouble sustaining strong starts at times. After Millbrook lost its momentum at the end of the first set, the Pioneers could never really get it back.

"We just needed to be a little bit more consistent throughout the whole match," Milton said. "We had some good runs there toward the end and we would close, but we just couldn't get close enough to get over that hump and get past them."

In the grand scheme of things, it was a pretty successful season for the Pioneers. Millbrook lost a Division I player in Madison Koeller and four other players from last year's team, and added three freshmen at the outset of the season. They still advanced to regionals for the seventh straight year.

"Our younger girls got a lot of experience this year and got a lot of playing time," Milton said. "Hopefully, we'll build it on that next year."

Behneke, Lockley and middle hitter Valentina Burrill will depart as seniors and four-year program members.

"They helped keep our region streak going and were mentors for the younger girls," Milton said.

Behneke appreciated her time with the Pioneers.

"I'm really going to miss everyone," Behneke said. "It's hard that it's over. I learned a lot this season. I'm thankful for Millbrook volleyball and over the past four years, what it's done for me. It helped me mentally and as an athlete.

"I'm proud of our team. We definitely grew. Starting with a bunch of freshmen was very interesting, but we made it work and did what we could."

For McCullough, Thursday's sweep was her second milestone this week. On Tuesday, she recorded her 1,000th career assist on the 11th point of the first set in James Wood's quarterfinal win over Charlottesville, much to her surprise.

The point before her 1,000th assist, she got a laugh out of Spence when she told her she thought Spence had more assists than her at that point in the match. Then, after she set the ball for her milestone moment, a timeout was called. At first she thought Charlottesville was responsible, but then she realized it was Patrick.

"I was so confused," McCullough said.

A congratulatory sign made by senior teammate Lexi Taylor was then revealed, but before she saw what it said McCullough assumed it was for an accomplishment by one of her teammates.

Patrick said everyone on the team but McCullough was told where McCulliugh stood with assists coming into Tuesday.

"As soon as the sign was held up, and I called a timeout and started walking towards her, she started cheering, and then immediately looked toward other players," Patrick said. "When she realized it was for her, she even pointed to herself and said, 'Me?' The team means so much to her. It's about what she can provide to them. It's always 'team' before 'I' for her. She's the best example of that on our squad, and that reaction that she had proves that 100 percent."

Patrick pointed out that any of her players could go online to the Colonels' MaxPreps page to look at season and career statistics, but McCullough has never given much thought to them.

"I don't look at stats as defining me," she said. "It's a goal [to have good stats], but I try not to look, because I know I'll get in my head more about it. I just know I have to play the game I always do and know I gave my all."

James Wood also led by Tenley Mattison (four blocks). Millbrook was led by Berkeley Konrady (10 kills), Paisley Cook (13 assists, two aces), Nicole Burau (four blocks), Green (three blocks), Kate Madden (11 digs) and Natalie Huck (10 digs).

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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