GOOCHLAND –Nova Wonderling did gymnastics for 10 years, and she thinks that’s helped build up the fiery power she’s unleashed consistently on the volleyball court.
She was greeted with roaring cheers from Goochland’s home crowd when she smashed a no-doubt kill onto the opponent’s floor for a 12-5 lead in the first set. The sophomore hitter tallied up a team-leading 11 kills as she and several of her teammates brought the powerful attacks to propel the Bulldogs on past Region 3A runner-up Park View for a straight-sets triumph (25-12, 25-8, 25-21) in Saturday’s Class 3 state quarterfinals.
“They’re all working hard, they’re all going after the ball – it doesn’t matter who’s on the court and when,” said second-year Goochland head coach Rachel Jacobsen. “They’re doing the best that they can and that’s what we need to see.”
Nina Smith, a freshman who made the jump up to varsity from middle school – and one of multiple newcomers to make an impact this season – delivered point-after-point and helped Goochland secure the lead for good in the first set at 5-4. She totaled 7 kills alongside 2 blocks.
“It felt amazing,” Smith said. “It was a really good game, and before the game we were super-nervous, but once we got out there, we all worked together really good.”
Senior setter Trinity Wonderling, who delivered 6 kills, 12 assists and 2 aces, praised Smith not just for her power but for her willingness to learn from her teammates.
“Nina’s an amazing player and it feels so good to have a freshman that wants us to help her,” Trinity said. “Nina’s done such a good job with letting us coach her.”
Nova pointed to the seniors’ influence – going around the block is among the things she picked up from them – and Smith noted how she’s learned a lot from King and Trinity.
“They’ve really coached me throughout the whole season,” Smith said, “and it’s been really helpful.”
Junior Taylor Michaels served Goochland into an 11-5 first-set lead and delivered key kills in a dominant second set, and freshman middle force Nicole Brown continued to pull in more points off of her attack from near the net.
Agile sophomore setter Blair Bussells raced from spot to spot on the court to rack up 16 assists and 7 digs alongside 1 ace, and Michaels and seniors Ellie Spencer and Ilaria Russell continued to defensively hone in on digs and serve-receives. Spencer also had the attack for match point.
After Park View grabbed an early 2-0 lead in the first set, senior middle Mary King, who would make big attacks and kills down the stretch, helped tie up the stanza at 2-all when she blocked an attack up the middle.
“I think it definitely brought my energy up, everyone on the team and the crowd’s energy up,” said King, who also served well, about which she added: “I just kind of find someone to serve to – serve at them for a little bit – and then switch it up so they don’t get too used to it.”
Goochland led 17-9 in the third set before the Dragons slashed the home team’s advantage down to 20-19 and 21-20. But each time, Trinity gave her team the insurance point – the second time on a kill to the floor, the first time on an attack that she slammed off the receiving player’s hands.
“I keep my eye on the other side of the court – that’s one of the most important things to do, is be able to look through the net and knowing where to hit certain spots just to get the point,” Trinity said. “It’s not about how hard you hit all the time; it’s about placement of the ball and I think that’s really important to be able to get points.”
Leads of 14-2 and 24-6 in the second set epitomized how much the Bulldogs have grown this season in limiting unforced errors. When they were watching film the day before the game, Jacobsen noted how they identified that they haven’t been giving away as many points as they were at the beginning of the season, “which makes it a lot easier to stay on top of a team when we’re not giving stuff up from missed serves and missed serve-receives.”
“They’re really focused in practice,” Jacobsen added of her players. “I’m really excited for them; they’re doing awesome.”
With Tabb defeating Independence in five sets in the other Class 3, Region A/B state quarterfinals matchup, the Region 3B championship-winning Goochland Bulldogs (22-0) played their final home match of the season – and they did so in front of an enthusiastic crowd.
“I know (the girls are) big on making sure their friends come; our other coaches are really super supportive and really making sure that their teams come and help us out and (are) here to cheer for us,” Jacobsen said. “We’re going to be making sure we do that for them in the future. It’s really great to see our community come together.”
The Bulldogs will play in their first state semifinal since their 3-1 loss to Wilson Memorial in 2017, and their second since winning the state championship in 2015 with a different head coach and an entirely different roster.
“It’s definitely a great feeling to be back to the state semifinal game because we were there and lost short of the state championship two years ago, and it was really upsetting,” King said. “It just feels great to be back and be able to make an impact and show everyone that we can get to this point again with new coaching and a bunch of new players.”
Goochland will play the Tabb Tigers at Tabb High School on Tuesday, Nov. 19 in the Class 3 state semifinals. Watching film on teams, including their upcoming opponent, has been essential to the Bulldogs; it’s helped them figure out what they need to work on in practice as well as adjust to what their opponents play like.
Keeping each other up also remains a focus.
“We look for each other to be there, and I think that we do a really good job of feeding our energy to people and knowing that it’s okay if we mess up and just focus on the next serve,” Trinity said.
“It’s just point-by-point, and that’s what’s important,” Jacobsen said. “The girls are really focused on that: ‘You know what? We messed up, it’s okay, next ball, move on.’ They’re really ready to go.”
Smith is really proud that this is the team and the players with whom she got pulled up to play at the varsity level.
“Everyone’s super-nice,” she said. “I just feel comfortable.”