Looking back, veteran Grafton High volleyball coach Dena Montini recalled a time when there were barely one or two other teams that ever challenged her Clippers or their district rivals from Jamestown for the Bay Rivers District title.
“Five years ago, it pretty much all boiled down to Jamestown and Grafton,” said Montini, entering her 14th season as Grafton’s head coach. “Sometimes you’d have a team like Lafayette or New Kent that would be in the mix, but there were really only a few games a year that you had to prepare for.”
The reason, Montini believes, was that there weren’t enough volleyball minds at the helm of programs around the area.
“There used to be a lot of coaches whose main sport wasn’t volleyball,” Montini said. “Now there’s an influx of coaches who know what they’re doing, they know the game of volleyball and have been around it. The competitiveness has changed tremendously.”
Montini got a glimpse of just how competitive things could be this year in her team’s season-opener Tuesday against Poquoson. The Islanders, under the direction of sixth-year head coach Tim Hatok, gave the Clippers all they could handle before Grafton escaped with a narrow victory in five games.
“It went down to the wire,” said Montini of Tuesday’s season-opener. “I think it showed our girls that you can’t take nights off, and that’s what happened to us last year.”
Jamestown coach Tom Stephenson agrees with Montini that there’s a lot more parity in the district this year. He believes his team has the potential to make a returned-trip to VCU’s Siegel Center for the state tournament, but isn’t overlooking a district that he says is as competitive as it’s been in his eight seasons with the Eagles.
“I think it’s more wide open than ever,” Stephenson said of the district during one of his team’s practices this week. “Grafton is going to be good like they always are, Poquoson has improved a lot, York has a ton of athletes and looks strong, Warhill made huge strides last season and New Kent only graduated one player.
“I think there could be five or six teams that could be in the mix.”
Even with the district appearing to be as deep as its been in years, both Grafton and Jamestown – who, in that order, have reached the Group AA state final the past two seasons – still figure to be the favorites to capture the district hardware.
Despite graduating seven seniors from last year’s team, Jamestown, the defending Bay Rivers and Region I champs, isn’t short on experience or talent.
Outside hitter Briana Sutton, last year’s Bay Rivers and Region I Player of the Year who spent 10 days training with USA’s Junior National team this summer in Des Moines, Iowa, is the Eagles’ lone senior and returns as one of the top players in the state. She and junior setter Monique St. Cyr, who set a VHSL record for assists in a season last year, were both first team all-state performers a year ago.
Junior hitter Kelly Esch, who was second on the team in kills behind Sutton last fall, was another key contributor from last season who brings talent and leadership as a three-year starter. Junior Victoria Bowen, who received an honorable mention on the all-district team, and defensive specialist Olivia Cavanugh add experience to a team that Stephenson says is already a cohesive group.
“We lost seven seniors, but when you look at who we return, a lot of our core nucleus is back,” Stephenson said. “As good as Briana was last season, I think she’s even better because she’s expanded her game. She’s really improved defensively – she had 15 digs against Tabb on Monday – and become one of the best passers on our team.”
Stephenson added that he was very impressed by his team’s performance in a preseason Jamboree held at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford, Va. earlier this month. The Eagles went 3-1 against some of the state’s top programs, including a 2-0 victory over last year’s Group AA champion Cave Springs, who knocked off Jamestown in last year’s state final.
For Montini, she loses an all-state setter in Rachel Richards as well as libero Sam Sours, but welcomes back a slew of young talent that gained invaluable experience a year ago.
The Clippers’ leading returner is senior Ashley Lind, one of the district’s more ferocious hitters who was an all-region performer last season. Juniors Kendal Mahoney, Savannah Baxley and Hannah Olson also return with a year of starting experience as underclassmen under their belts. Expect key contributions from juniors Delaney Davis and Sierra Doucette as well.
“We started four sophomores and a freshman [last season],” Montini said. “We took our hits last year, but I think we learned a lot and will be better because of it this season.”
Montini said the biggest difference for her team this year will be moving Hall, who was her team’s number two hitter as a freshman last season, over to setter to replace Richards.
“It’s hard to lose a strong hitter like Christa, but she’s also our best passer,” Montini said. “The dynamic will definitely be different, but we have girls that are familiar with how things go now and should be able to step up.”
Five Other District Players to Keep an Eye On
Karley Allen, senior, New Kent- 2011 first team all-district, all-region hitter
Alex Koon, sophomore, Warhill- 2011 first team all-district, all-region hitter
Sydney Sumner, sophomore, York- 2011 2nd team all-district, a tremendous athlete and one of district’s rising stars
Grace Nowadly, senior, Lafayette- 2011 2nd team all-district, do-it-all senior and floor leader for the Rams
Brittany Saetre, senior, Poquoson- 2011 2nd team all-district, strong passer and hitter