GOOCHLAND – You know that point in the sports movies where the players get so excited about finally conquering something?
That’s how senior Ellie Spencer felt after Thursday’s regional semifinal match.
She and her fellow seniors, who were part of elevating Goochland Volleyball to the 2017 state semifinals, will get another chance to battle for that ultimate title, as they and their teammates secured a 2019 state tournament berth in straight sets over William Monroe (25-17, 25-27, 25-20).
“This is something they’ve wanted since preseason,” said Goochland head coach Rachel Jacobsen. “We talked back in August about: ‘What are our goals for the season?’ And all of them said: ‘Make it to states.’ I’m sure they’re over-the-moon about this, and they worked really hard for it.”
“It’s definitely exciting – it was really sad to end short that year (in 2017), and especially ending short last year, too (in the region semifinals),” said senior Mary King, who launched 7 kills and smashed the match point to the opponents’ floor. “It’s exciting to at least get back in the state tournament and feel what it’s like to play again, except as seniors.”
“It feels amazing to be able to be part of this and know that we’re seniors and that we give it our all every year, but this year we’re connected truly well,” said senior Trinity Wonderling, who in addition to setting well with 9 assists slammed a kill through traffic to set up match point.
“This is what everyone dreams of when they’re playing their last year of volleyball,” said senior Ilaria Russell. “They want to make it all the way – and that’s what I hope we do.”
It’s Goochland’s second time reaching states since winning the championship in 2015 – and the first time under Jacobsen in her second year at the helm.
“It’s super-exciting – I knew they could do it; I just was waiting for them to show us they could,” Jacobsen said. “I’m excited to be moving on and moving up and ready to see what they can do next.”
The Bulldogs are also still unbeaten in regular-season and postseason matches, having lost only two sets so far in their 20-0 stretch.
The Dragons on Thursday came out on fire in every set, battling Goochland toe-to-toe to tie the home team up to the 12th point in the first two stanzas and all the way up to 18-all in the third.
But every time, the Bulldogs seemed to find an extra gear.
“Most of volleyball is a mental game, so it’s just a matter of staying focused, being ready for the next play and, when things aren’t going our way, just moving on to the next – it’s always the next point,” Jacobsen said. “They did a really good job of staying in it and keeping their heads on straight.”
In addition to making its early third-set rally, Goochland also had to battle out of a 9-5 deficit in the second, tying the Dragons at 9-all with speedy sophomore Blair Bussells serving, and then matching the Dragons point-for-point to tie again at 12-all.
That’s when it happened.
A wild, chaotic and brilliant rally unfolded as players on both sides of the net made quick defensive touches to keep the ball afloat. William Monroe players maneuvered wide of the net to make timely returns and Goochland’s Taylor Michaels hit the ground on a huge save.
It ended in an exclamation mark as Mary King rose up and slammed the ball to the corner, slicing it across the ground to lift Goochland ahead at 13-12. For King, it was definitely exciting to find a spot on the floor that was open and cut it there after the Dragons defended at least three of her hits earlier in the game.
Her teammates Spencer (24 digs), Bussells (4 assists, 11 digs) and Michaels were all diving and tumbling across the floor to keep the ball in the air and extend rallies.
“It’s adrenaline,” Spencer said, adding how “there’s a special feeling” you get “when you pass it perfect.”
Goochland’s freshmen also delivered in the clutch, as Nicole Brown defended well at the net and Nina Smith (7 kills) crushed four attacks to help catapult the Bulldogs out of a 1-5 third-set hole and into a 7-6 advantage. Hard-hitting sophomore Nova Wonderling also delivered timely strikes for points.
The Bulldogs weren’t afraid to rotate their players, as everyone on Goochland’s side of the court was able to do damage.
“Their communication was on point tonight,” Jacobsen said of her players. “Nothing sort of went to the same place twice…[the Dragons’] right side had a really good line shot – we don’t see that very often – and they did a really great job of coming in and covering that. We were everywhere…I was excited that they were getting there.”
Russell was among Goochland’s players to absorb the big hits when they came flying across the net off of the Dragons’ fierce attack.
“I was telling her: Her little Spidey senses were tingling – she knew when it was in, she knew when it was out, and she was ready for it,” Jacobsen said of Russell. “She did a really great job tonight.”
And just as she did Tuesday, Russell once again factored into helping her team keep the opponents off-balance with a sharp serve.
“When I go back and serve, I always try to relax and I’m calm and I’m just like, ‘I’m just gonna serve it, and I’m gonna get them,’” Russell said. “That’s just my mentality…”
Trinity’s serve also caught fire as the match progressed, becoming harder and harder for the opponents to intercept. She totaled 5 service aces on the evening.
Trinity also delivered consistency throughout the match and especially down the stretch in putting the ball in place for her hitters on short-distance sets – which, she noted, are hard sets to make.
“And it’s hard to communicate when you have to go that fast,” Trinity said. “But some hitters and setters have chemistry and I feel like that helps a lot when you know each other really well.”
Senior Rachel Carter praised the energy that the players bring to Goochland’s team, and keeping up that energy – the seniors noted – is among the team’s key goals going into the next rounds of the postseason.
“If we get down, that’s when we’re gonna lose,” Russell said, “and we’re not gonna get down, so we’re not gonna lose.”
Before the Bulldogs can begin state tournament play, they have one more game to tackle: the Region 3B championship match, which will be held Tuesday, Nov. 12 (7 p.m.) at Goochland High School and will determine who hosts the state quarterfinal and who will hit the road to battle for a state semifinals bid.
Their next opponent, Loudoun County-based Independence, will likely provide them with their toughest challenge to date.
“Either way, win or lose, it’s gonna prepare us,” Jacobsen said. “We’ll be ready for whatever comes next, we’ll get to see some really great competition – we already have – so it’ll be great going forward.”
She added of her Bulldogs: “They’re ready for anything.”