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If Warhill’s volleyball team had to pick a second home, it might just be Virginia Commonwealth University’s Stuart C. Siegel Center.
The Lions have made a habit of playing in the Siegel Center for the past three years in the Virginia High School League Group 3A state volleyball tournament with three consecutive appearances.
Warhill’s latest venture to Richmond proved a successful one as the Lions swept Hidden Valley 25-15, 25-19, 25-22 to claim their second consecutive state championship.
“The outcome was exactly as I had hoped,” Warhill Coach Greg Koon said. “It was probably our best serving match of the season. This team here tonight is not the same team you saw in the first match, and they got better every week.”
Back-to-back state championships seemed ludicrous after the Lions, who did not lose last season, opened this season 2-3. However, Koon said his team grew mentally tough throughout the season and learned how to fight against tough teams.
It showed Saturday afternoon as the Lions controlled every facet of the match against the Group 3A West champions Hidden Valley.
The Lions opened the match with a dominating first set against the Titans, led by senior Nicole Mulligan and junior Cori Clifton. Mulligan, who led the Lions with 19 kills and nine digs, and Clifton, who had 17 assists, 11 kills and nine digs, each played a key role in Warhill’s most recent state championship.
Mulligan filled the role of the hard hitter, logging kills whether at the net or from the back line, while Clifton logged digs on defense before rotating up to the net and cleaning up easy kill attempts.
Warhill opened the first set on a 9-5 run, which prompted Hidden Valley to burn a quick timeout. The pause in play proved ineffective for the Titans as the Lions kept rolling along and extending their lead.
With a 16-9 lead in hand, Warhill forced Hidden Valley to burn its final timeout of the set.
Leading 18-13 over Hidden Valley, Mulligan logged a kill and two aces over a four-point stretch to help the Lions close out the first set 25-15.
The Lions got more of a fight out of the Titans in the second set before pulling away late.
Warhill and Hidden Valley split the first 18 points before Warhill went on a quick 4-0 spurt to force a Hidden Valley timeout.
This time the timeout helped slow Warhill’s momentum and allowed Hidden Valley to get back into the game thanks to a pair of Warhill errors and a much-needed ace from Georgia Farthing.
With the second set tied at 18-18, Warhill won back-to-back points and forced Hidden Valley’s final timeout of the set. Fresh out of the break, the Lions found their groove, in part thanks to three kills by Mulligan.
The Lions took five of the final six points to claim the set and take a 2-0 advantage over the Titans.
“The best players are identified at the highest levels of competition,” Koon said. “In three sets to have 19 kills, [Nicole Mulligan’s] performance was huge.
Warhill seemed destined to cruise past Hidden Valley in the third set after starting on a 6-1 run and forcing the Titans to use an early timeout.
Hidden Valley refused to go down easily, using three Warhill errors over a four-point span to claw within one point of the Lions at 10-9. The Titans eventually tied the match at 11-11.
The Titans jumped out to a brief 14-12 lead on the Lions, but Warhill clawed its way back into the match and tied the set at 14-14 with back-to-back kills by Clifton.
With the set tied 20-20, Mulligan gave her team a life with an ace coming off her powerful jumping topspin serve. On the next play, Mulligan hammered home a kill from near the back line to give the Lions a 22-20 lead.
Leading 24-22 over the Titans, Warhill (21-5) freshman Chloe Wilmoth netted the game’s final point and handed the Lions their second state championship in as many years.
“It feels great [to win back-to-back state championships], but it’s even better having an amazing team,” said an emotional Mulligan, a senior, after the match. “Leaving them is really hard because they’re amazing.”
Warhill’s players set a goal at the beginning of the season to repeat as state champions. And while Koon wasn’t ready to commit to such a goal then, he was more than happy to see his Lions achieve their desired outcome.
“You cannot underestimate the drive of a team. They were driven and they were determined,” he said. “They accomplished what they set out to do.”
Warhill def. Hidden Valley 25-15, 25-19, 25-22
Warhill: Nicole Mulligan (19 kills, 9 digs, 3 aces), Chloe Wilmoth (13 kills, 22 assists, 5 digs, 2 blocks, 2 aces), Cori Clifton (17 assists, 11 kills, 9 digs, 3 blocks)
Hidden Valley: Drew Freeland (16 assists, 11 digs, 4 kills, 2 aces), Georgia Farthing (13 digs, 5 kills, 4 assists), Annie Clark (11 digs, 3 kills)