GOOCHLAND – Taylor Michaels dove for the dig to keep the ball afloat, Nina Smith smashed the ball to the opponent’s floor, and Goochland Volleyball won the first point of Tuesday’s Region 3B quarterfinal.
From there, the tone was set.
Defense honed in on the ball, the servers kept the receiving players off-balance and the hitters peppered misdirection into their varied kills to propel the Goochland Bulldogs past visiting Central-Woodstock in straight-sets (25-8, 25-15, 25-13) and into the Region 3B tournament semifinals.
“It was pretty big considering we moved up a division [from Class 2 to 3],” Michaels said of the win. “We didn’t really know what to expect...so I think we did really well.”
“I’m really excited – the girls played awesome tonight,” said Rachel Jacobsen, who is in her second year as the Bulldogs’ head coach. “They came out ready to go…we’re really excited to be able to have a challenge and go after it…”
Even after going unbeaten in the regular season, the Bulldogs (19-0) appeared to show even more improvement in their play from the get-go. When Central called a timeout in the first set trailing 8-2, Goochland had earned six of their eight points on kills, a block and an error forced by versatile senior setter Trinity Wonderling launching one of her several successful setter dump attacks, which Central in this instance hit away.
After they watched film ahead of Tuesday’s quarterfinal, Jacobsen noted how the players focused on working on specific skills, and went into practice the day before on Monday and practiced those skills.
“And honestly,” she said, “it’s a lot of what won us that first set and later.”
“We’ve been doing mental conditioning, so we’ve been working a lot on picking each other up and staying on what we’re covering…just stuff to help us get past little ruts we get in,” Michaels added.
Goochland’s players left very few parts of the floor uncovered throughout the match, and they continued to excel at the roles they’ve held throughout the year. Trinity (12 assists) and sophomore Blair Bussells (15 assists) raced to the ball to make timely sets, King ranged her attacks from big spikes to strategically placed dinks for 6 kills, Trinity flexed her well-rounded play with shallow and short attacks aplenty to earn 10 kills and Ellie Spencer made spectacular diving saves on the way to totaling 17 digs. She flew under the ball to narrowly keep it off the ground near the net before Central erred on the play for a 15-4 Goochland lead in the first set, then made a wild, one-handed tumbling save in the third set to help set up another one of Trinity’s dump attacks.
But Michaels also factored heavily into Goochland’s stonewalling backline, successfully honing in on serve-receive after serve-receive and going low for digs. Last year she worked with a defensive specialist and they were switching-off, so this is her first year in which she’s really stepped in and taken that position as her own, Jacobsen noted.
“She’s been working really hard at it,” Jacobsen said of Michaels, adding how the junior will request and put in more practice on her back-row play.
Michaels also credits the chemistry she and her longtime teammates have built up together.
“We’ve been playing with each other for so many years that I think it just comes naturally to us now,” Michaels said. “We just know where everyone’s gonna be, so we know when to cover and when not to cover.”
Michaels also bolstered her team’s offense with several big attacks, including a long kill that she launched over the defenders’ heads, across the length of the half-court and inbounds for a 7-2 first-set Goochland lead. Michaels finished the match with 7 digs and 4 kills.
Goochland also got plenty of offense from sophomore Nova Wonderling, whose hammering arm repeatedly unleashed an echo whenever it slammed the ball to the opponent’s floor or ricocheted it off a defender’s hand. She tallied up 9 kills and made a bewildering play where she got to a ball that was over the net; she was also slamming the ball so hard that the opponent’s blocks and returns were sending the ball wide of the net.
“I was amazed – I don’t know how she does it!” Jacobsen said. “Just incredible – she rocks! Love her!”
Serving for Goochland was sharp and aggressive. Ellie Spencer was consistently lasering fast-traveling serves to the receiving players, and Ilaria Russell, who also defended well on the backline, helped Goochland lead the third set 8-1 as she switched from a shallow serve to one that floated the ball towards the edges, and throughout her serves kept the receivers off-balance as they struggled to get clean touches on the incoming volleys. Russell also served a 4-0 stretch at the end of the set to help the Bulldogs secure the match.
“Serving is definitely a big piece of our game right now,” Jacobsen said. “I’m excited to see them be able to place it wherever we need to, when we need to…”
Goochland, the top seed in the Region 3B tournament, will host William Monroe in the semifinals on Thursday, Nov. 7 at 6:30 p.m. To Michaels, the key to winning that round will be “keeping each other up and encouraging each other.”
“And keep doing what we’re doing,” Michaels added. “I think we’ll get pretty far this year.”
“They’re ready – you could see it on their faces in that first set…they were ready to go,” Jacobsen said. “I was wondering how pumped-up we were gonna be and they blew me away, so I was excited about that. They’re ready to go.”