Loudoun County (Leesburg, Va.)
goes for its fifth straight Virginia High School League Group AA championship, the Raiders could find winning their own county as difficult as winning another state title.
Loudoun, a county in the Washington D.C. suburbs near Dulles International Airport, is home to arguably the four best teams in Virginia. Loudoun County,
Stone Bridge (Ashburn, Va.)
, Heritage (Leesburg, Va.)
and Broad Run (Ashburn, Va.)
entered last week with a combined record of 74-7, six of those losses coming amongst each other. Earlier this season, Stone Bridge (20-2, 5-0 Liberty District) snapped Loudoun County's 33-match winning streak. The Bulldogs' two losses were to Heritage and Broad Run.
Heritage (21-2, 15-2 Dulles District) has only lost to district rival Loudoun County (20-1, 16-0). Broad Run (20-4, 8-2 Cedar Run District) split two matches with Stone Bridge.
"I think there are a lot of factors as to why volleyball has really excelled in this little Loudoun County pocket compared to other places in Virginia," Stone Bridge coach Jill Raschiatore said. "Part of it starts in the middle schools. We have large middle school programs that I know (neighboring) Fairfax County does not have.
"You get kids interested at a young age and they start playing on club teams when they are 12 years old, as opposed to other places where they start playing club at a later time. Obviously then you get that snowball effect where you've got good volleyball teams in the county and it is cool to play volleyball. Middle school girls see older kids and siblings playing volleyball and they choose that sport at a young age."
The depth of quality volleyball teams is so great that a traditional power such as Loudoun Valley (Purcellville, Va.)
, which has won four state titles since 2000, is almost an afterthought during a "down year" that saw the Vikings entering the week at 13-10 and 8-8 in the Dulles District.
As it stands, the biggest roadblock in the way of a fifth-straight Group AA title for Loudoun County might be a playoff rematch with Heritage.
"We'll probably play them again in the district tournament," Loudoun County coach Jenica Matthias said. "We could play them again in the regional final and maybe again in the state semis, so that's pretty cool that we do get to see teams that are really good."
Broad Run and Stone Bridge, both Group AAA schools, give the county a shot at bringing home state titles in Virginia's two largest divisions.
Matthias said her program took a huge step forward five years ago when the Raiders reached the state title match, but lost to Cave Spring. That taste of success led to four straight state championships and the Loudoun County program has in many ways served as a blueprint for other area schools.
"Each year we keep 13-15 players for our team," Matthias said. "That allowed me to bring up a lot more sophomores and keep a lot more players that can come back the next year so they would be in our program for about two, three or sometimes even four years. That right there helped a lot and just being able to have almost every single girl in our program playing club and playing almost year around.
"Because they play so much they get asked to attend some high-performance camps throughout the summer and their success allows to them to have more confidence they can play in college and when a girl gets the mindset she wants to play in college that ups her game a good 20 to 30 percent."
That includes players such as middle hitter Jenna Strange
, who was a PrepVolleyball.com All-American and committed to play at William & Mary last year after helping the Raiders to the VHSL title. This season, Strange is among the Dulles District and Washington D.C. area leaders in kills (155), blocks (38) and digs (163). (Stats were current as of last week)
As the regular season winds down, the Raiders, as well as the other Loudoun powerhouses, hope that surviving the gauntlet of fantastic local teams has them extra prepared for another run toward the state championship.
"There's another school in the state I like to scrimmage because they have a great program," Raschiatore said. "Every year that coach complains they don't have enough room for non-district games and their district schedule is mediocre. They have to go through the whole season without being challenged and all the sudden they get to the state level and are unprepared.
"They can't help it because they just don't see it on a regular basis. And you know what, that's one of our strengths. We might not get through a season undefeated, but there are many nights when you have good, challenging volleyball and you are going to walk away a better team whether you win or lose."