Wood looking to repeat as state champs against Hanover

WINCHESTER — When trying to repeat as state champions, a team has to deal with roster turnover, the hunger of opponents trying to take them down, and possible complacency within their own team.

There’s nothing a team can do about players lost to graduation or how motivated their opponents are to show they beat the champs. They can control their own desire and work ethic, and the James Wood volleyball team has shown all year just how determined it was to get back to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center in Richmond.

No team in Winchester, Frederick County or Clarke County has repeated as state champions since the Millbrook girls’ basketball team won its third consecutive title in 2012. But the Colonels (26-2) have a chance to do it on Friday when they take on Hanover (22-3) at 6:30 p.m. in the Virginia High School League Class 4 title match.

The word “family” is often used around the James Wood volleyball team, and that bond has helped push the program to greatness. The Colonels brought back seven players who contributed to the first state title in program history, and they’ve added three new players to the varsity to form another tight-knit group this year.

“They fight for each other,” James Wood head coach Adrienne Patrick said. “That’s probably one of the reasons we never changed our October net tape [for cancer awareness] that says ‘We fight together.’ We normally change it back [to James Wood Colonels], but this year we didn’t because the team wanted to keep it up.”

With eight of the 10 players members of Blue Ridge Volleyball, the Colonels are around each other a lot even when it’s not the high school season. And for James Wood, players first start coming together in May for open gyms.

“We’ve all been focused from the beginning,” James Wood senior setter Hannah McCullough said. “We do have a lot of returners, so that does help us. We know how each other plays, we do our preseason stuff. We all know each other well. And we knew we had one goal.”

Even if James Wood didn’t have self-motivated players who also feel comfortable pushing each other, the Colonels had no shortage of strong opponents on their schedule to help bring out their best.

The Colonels’ victories this year include ones over West Virginia powers Musselman (Class AAA state finalist this year) and Hedgesville (Class AAA state semifinalist), and Maryland powers North Hagerstown (looking to repeat as Class 3A champions) and Williamsport (Class 2A semifinalists). James Wood also went a combined 5-0 against another state power in Frederick County rival Millbrook and a Sherando team that won 15 matches, its most since 2011.

The victory over Musselman came in the Endless Summer tournament on Sept. 16 in Virginia Beach, which featured best-of-three sets matches. James Wood suffered its only two defeats there, one to Flint Hill (which has defended its Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division I state title), and the other to Hidden Valley, which will play for the Class 3 state title on Saturday.

The Colonels appreciated the experience and the competition, because it helped their bond and preparation for the rest of the season.

“We spent a whole weekend together, so we just grew more,” McCullough said. “We played a bunch of new teams that we’ve never played. Our first loss against Flint Hill reminded us anything is possible. Then we had to work on trying to fight back against Hidden Valley. I think we played well, but we just had a few kinks we couldn’t work out.”

“Seeing people from all over I think is great,” Patrick said. “We played a team from Puerto Rico. We learned a lot of lessons about ourselves and what we really needed. You can’t be mad at losses ever, because there’s so much to learn from them.”

James Wood changed its lineup after that tournament by deciding to go without a libero, a defensive position that requires the player to stay on the back row. As good as sophomore Brenna Corbin was at libero, Patrick decided they needed her to rotate into the front row to take advantage of her hitting ability. Corbin’s performance as a defensive specialist and outside hitter helped her earn First Team All-State honors last year.

Patrick also has faith in that whoever is on the back row can handle herself well. Corbin leads James Wood with 345 digs, but six other players have between 101 and 193 digs. All seven of those players are averaging at least 1.3 digs per set.

“The girls have the capacity to play all positions,” Patrick said.

“That’s just a big compliment [of the team’s skill], I guess you can say, because it’s hard to play without a libero,” McCullough said. “We are a good, solid passing team.”

The Colonels are pretty much doing everything at a higher level this year, but their hitting efficiency is particularly notable. Led by Region 4D and Class 4 Northwestern District Player of the Year Kennedy Spaid (332 kills), an All-State selection last year, five players have more than 100 kills. Four of those players are returners with improved hitting percentages (kills minus errors divided by total attacks) and varsity newcomer and sophomore Tenley Mattison ranks second in hitting percentage.

“All of our hitters have gotten better,” Patrick said.

Hanover did not qualify for the state tournament last year and will be playing in its first state final since 2006, but the Hawks boast some experienced skill. Senior opposite Campbell Woods (6-foot-1) was a Second Team All-State selection last year who is taller than anyone on the Colonels, though she’s the only Hawk over 5-10. Alexis Currie (5-7) was a First Team All-State defensive specialist last year but is listed as an outside hitter.

The Hawks’ defeats are to Atlee (they split two matches), Class 5 quarterfinalist Midlothian and Class 6 quarterfinalist Deep Run.

James Wood expects a great match from Hanover. If the Colonels are to win, it will be because they’re focused on what they’re doing and not what Hanover is doing. James Wood’s focus and attention to detail has helped it sweep all five of its postseason opponents.

“They’re 100 percent locked in,” Patrick said. “Watching us in the postseason, I feel like we’ve shown growth and gotten better in a lot of ways.”

McCullough said the Colonels are looking forward to showing what they can do one more time.

“If we play James Wood volleyball, we can beat most people,” McCullough said. “We just have to stay together with the incredible bond that we have. Serving and passing wins games, and that’s what I feel like we do best. I think if we have a great opportunity, and I think if just play James Wood volleyball, we’ll win.”

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