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The Warhill volleyball team that opened its season with a loss to Lafayette looks completely different from the one preparing to take on Bay Rivers District leaders Jamestown on Tuesday.
While the faces are the same for Warhill, the demeanor and quality of play have drastically improved.
A rough start to the 2015 season that gave the Lions a losing record after five matches seems like a distant memory, as Warhill has now won seven consecutive matches and holds a 9-3 record.
The transition from last year’s historic season in which the Lions posted a 30-1 record, won the program’s first state championship and garnered a MaxPreps ranking of 63rd in the nation was anything but smooth.
Warhill had to cope with the graduation of Alex Koon, the Group 3A All-State Player of the Year and returned only six players from last year’s state-championship team. Warhill Coach Greg Koon — the 2014 Group 3A Coach of the Year — said this year’s group of players was “essentially a whole new team.”
“Losing … our best players, we lost a lot with them,” said Nicole Mulligan, a senior. “Bringing in all of the new girls, we weren’t all as close as we are now.”
New faces, a summer of inactivity and the weight of expectations around the program led Warhill into uncharted territory. Five matches into the 2015 season, the Lions sported a 2-3 record with losses to Jamestown, Poquoson and Lafayette.
In fairness to Warhill, those three teams have been near the top of the standings in the Bay Rivers District in recent years. However, for a team that stumbled only once last year, the feeling of having a losing record was an unfamiliar one for Warhill’s volleyball program.
“I think their struggle has been that winning isn’t coming as easy as it did last year,” Greg Koon said about this year’s team. “This year it requires everybody to provide their 100 percent for 100 percent of the time. Last year, I had a few players that could put the team on their back and carry them through a set or a match. This year, there isn’t that one or two players. It requires contributions from everybody.”
Sensing a lack of mental fortitude from his players, Koon chose to challenge his players during practices he called “strenuous” and “mentally challenging.”
The goal, Koon said, is to acclimate his players to stressful situations similar to the ones they might face during matches. In Koon’s opinion, being able to manage and play through stressful stretches can often be the difference between winning and losing.
“The practices are super helpful,” Mulligan said. “Some earlier coaches weren’t pushing us as hard. All of us continuing to be pushed to not make a mistake has really helped us. We have to focus more on what we’re doing instead of doing it super fast and trying to get it done.”
An increased attention to detail, combined with improved team chemistry and morale, has helped the Lions find their groove and begin to resemble the team that made a deep postseason run in 2014. They have won seven consecutive matches.
With a rematch against a 15-1 Jamestown team in the midst of a nine-match win streak looming Tuesday, Koon is hopeful his team’s growth will translate to the court against the top team in the Bay Rivers District.
For Koon, Tuesday’s match against Jamestown – a historically successful program that last season reached the Group 4A state tournament semifinals and had a 42-match Bay Rivers District win streak snapped by Warhill – will serve as a benchmark for how good this year’s team actually is.
“If we lose in three sets, then that would indicate to me that the team hasn’t grown as much as I thought,” Koon said. “A five-set loss shows me the team is playing better and they are improving like it appears to me.”
And if the Lions were to knock off the Eagles: “I would say that would be a good indication that we are a viable team with a valid shot to repeat or get to the state finals.”