Colonels sweep Blacksburg, will return to state final

WINCHESTER — A talented, experienced and focused squad is just one win away from owning Virginia High School League Class 4 volleyball again.

Defending Class 4 champion James Wood never trailed at any point in a 3-0 win over Blacksburg, capturing Tuesday's state semifinal match by the scores of 25-21, 25-12, 25-14 on Tuesday at Shirley Gymnasium.

The Colonels players and coaches swarmed and hugged each other to the ground when a Bruins spike sailed wide on match point, and now James Wood will look to inspire a similar celebration on Friday at the Virginia Commonwealth University Siegel Center in Richmond. The Region 4D champion Colonels (26-2) will take on Region 4B champion Hanover (22-3), a 3-2 winner over Jamestown in Tuesday's other semifinal, at 6:30 p.m.

It would have been understandable if the Colonels' focus wasn't razor-sharp against Region 4D runner-up Blacksburg (18-8) given that they had outscored the Bruins 75-53 just 10 days earlier in a sweep at Shirley Gymnasium.

Instead, they were even better on Tuesday, outscoring Blacksburg 75-47 even though the Bruins had Jordan Boffen — the team's tallest player at 5 feet, 10 inches — take the floor after not competing in the Region 4D final.

In front of a crowd that filled up most of the bleachers, James Wood jumped out to an 8-2 lead and refused to give it up despite a couple of strong charges from Blacksburg in the opening set.

That first game was the Bruins' best chance against a James Wood team that has now swept all five of its postseason matches. The Colonels opened the second set with a 13-3 run and scored the last three points at the end of it, and they began the third set with an 11-4 burst and closed the match with four consecutive points.

James Wood sophomore middle hitter Tenley Mattison (four kills, four blocks) said the Colonels didn't allow themselves to dwell on their recent success against Blacksburg.

"That is always something that should be irrelevant," Mattison said. "You never know what to expect. You should never go off of what they played like last time."

James Wood coach Adrienne Patrick hammered home that mindset in Monday's practice.

"It was pretty intense, because we don't want to ever underestimate an opponent," Patrick said. "We prepare for every single match the exact same way. It doesn't matter that we just played them. They had a different girl [Boffen] playing that we hadn't seen before. You don't know what one person's energy can bring, so never underestimate an opponent."

Sophomore outside hitter Kennedy Spaid (team-high 18 kills as well as 13 digs) said Monday's practice definitely had the team focused.

"We knew what we were going to do, and we worked on a lot of the things that helped us win tonight," Spaid said.

Spaid felt the team's bond was strong on Tuesday, and the team needed every bit of their collective fortitude in the first set.

Blacksburg head coach Madison Haynes called a timeout after James Wood jumped out to that 8-2 lead, and the Bruins responded with a 9-3 run to knot the set at 11-11 to fire up their fans. A kill by Brenna Corbin (18 digs, six kills, four aces), an attack error, and a dink kill by Paige Ahakuelo (16 assists, seven kills, six digs, three blocks) put the Colonels back on top 14-11, though.

James Wood was still in solid shape with a 19-15 lead, but the Bruins responded with a 4-1 run to make it 20-19. But the Bruins couldn't hit through Mattison and Ahakuelo on the next two points, with the blocks putting the Colonels up 22-19 and prompting another Blacksburg timeout.

Rowan English (a team-high six kills and two blocks) recorded a kill to make it 22-20, but that was as close as the Bruins got. James Wood scored three of the next four points, with Ashlynn Spence (five kills, three blocks) getting a block on set point in a scramble situation to end the first set 25-21.

Those big blocks and a balanced attack (five players with multiple kills) helped James Wood grab the first set, and then Ahakuelo and Hannah McCullough (16 assists, eight digs) wisely sent a lot of balls Spaid's way the rest of the match.

The Region 4D Player was definitely in a hitting groove the last two games, recording 14 of James Wood's 27 kills in that stretch. She even had two straight kills in the second set with her left hand to make it 8-2. Whlle on the floor, she used a soft touch to angle a ball from near the left pole to the other side just inside the right sideline near the right pole for one point, then leapt toward the net while being challenged by the Blacksburg defense on the next point.

"I just have to use everything I have and put it all on the court," Spaid said.

No matter who was leaping up for spikes, James Wood was putting Blacksburg's defense to the test.

"They hit harder than anyone we've played," Haynes said.

The Bruins advanced to the state semifinals in 2019 and 2020 and the state quarters in 2021 before missing last year's state tournament.

"Just to see the girls come together and play for each other and play for our school, I think has been the most rewarding thing," said Haynes, who was the JV coach last year.

Playing for each other is a big reason why the Colonels are in a position to repeat. Their 10-girl roster features seven holdovers from last year. Mattison, one of the three newcomers, said it's a great group to be a part of.

"It's very special," she said. "It feels like a second family. I really love being a part of this team. Everyone is super nice and sweet."

And on the court, the Colonels are as tough as they come.

"The heart balloons we had tonight, the message with those was about playing with a big heart," said Patrick when asked about the Colonels' ability to dig deep in key situations. "When you're putting everything that you have out on the court, nobody can defeat that type of optimism and positivity and the teamwork that they have."

A year ago, a James Wood program that hadn't appeared in a state final since 2014 took on a Grafton quad that had played in five straight state finals. Now the experienced Colonels will play Hanover, which did not qualify for the state tournament last year and will be playing in its first state final since 2006, when the Hawks lost in the Group AAA final to Deep Run.

"We definitely know what to expect [playing at VCU]," Spaid said. "It's going to be a nervous [feeling], too, going back there, but I think we can [win] again."

Addie Pitcock added three aces for James Wood.

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

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