FORT DEFIANCE — Coming into the season, Sue Leonard admitted that she had braced for a bit of a rebuild with a young squad that featured just two seniors.
Fort Defiance, which moved to the Shenandoah District from the Valley this season, has built one of the better volleyball programs in the area, but Leonard said her team was so young this year that she wasn’t quite sure they’d be a contender again.
“At the end of last season, I thought, ‘We’re going to a district with Wilson [Memorial] and Riverheads,” Leonard said. “We’re going to be lucky to get wins.’ To win the [Shenandoah District] is amazing. I just continue to be impressed with this group.”
The top-seeded Indians proved they’re in anything but a rebuild this season on Tuesday with a 22-25, 25-20, 25-23, 25-15 win over eighth-seeded Spotswood in the Region 3C volleyball quarterfinals in front of a packed house in Don Landes Gymnasium.
With the victory, Fort will advance to the regional semifinals on Thursday, where it’ll host Shenandoah District foe Wilson Memorial with a spot in the regional championship match and in the Virginia High School League Class 3 state tournament on the line.
“We were super excited this year because the connection on the team is great.” Indians sophomore Lani Goggin said. “We’re basically sisters at this point. We work together and we knew we were going to be good this year, but no one else thought that.”
That camaraderie between the Fort players was put to the test against the Trailblazers.
Using some strong defensive play along the back line and powerful hitting from Ellie Roach, Gabby Atwell and Suzanne Fornadel, Spotswood came out aggressively.
The Trailblazers jumped out to an early lead and never trailed en route to a 25-22 first-set victory that gave Spotswood confidence and forced the Indians to regroup.
“We came out with no energy whatsoever,” Fort senior setter Madison Painter said. “Spotswood had a ton of energy and we lost momentum and it just went completely downhill from there. We were talking about how we needed to play as a team, needed to come out strong in the second set and keep it up throughout the rest of the match.”
The second set was a different story with Fort jumping out to a 16-6 lead and even leading by as many as 12 before Spotswood went on an 11-1 run to make it interesting.
“I was proud,” SHS coach Jim Roth said. “We needed that momentum. It helped us in the third set. Even though we didn’t come through, I thought we were very competitive.”
The Trailblazers got as close as two in that third set, but Fort pulled away 25-20.
That momentum carried over into the third set, which was a back-and-forth affair that the Indians eventually won on a MaKayla Kershner ace and the fourth set was never close from the start as Fort scored the first six points and coasted to the match victory.
“They got down quickly in that fourth set and I just saw the look in their eyes,” Roth said. “They didn’t know what to do. There was a little panic, which isn’t a good thing.”
Goggin, who finished with 17 kills, 14 digs and seven blocks for the Indians, said the key to Fort turning things around Tuesday was simply coming together as a unit.
“We needed to pick up the energy,” Goggin said. “We have to have energy to get excited. When we’re excited, it picks it up and helps us. Usually when we get down, there are certain people who will pick it up. Today, we had the whole team pick it up.”
Leonard said there wasn’t a lot she liked about how her team performed on Tuesday, but also added that some of that is a credit to how well Spotswood played against them.
“We struggled with passing tonight,” Leonard said. “Maddie Painter has to run all over the gym to get balls. Our outside hitters struggled. Lani did a good job of hitting. They were a good blocking team. They did a good job of blocking. We’ve got to work harder.”
Painter finished with 38 assists, 12 digs four blocks and three aces for the Indians (22-2) while Ellie Cook had 25 digs, Kiersten Garber had eight kills and a pair of aces and Maggie Trainum finished with 13 kills, nine assists and two blocks in the quarterfinal win.
Now just one win shy of the state tournament, Painter said it’s hard to believe.
“It’s a big deal,” Painter said. “I feel like everyone didn’t have high expectations for us at the beginning of the season. We’ve blown that expectation out of the water.”
As for the Trailblazers (11-13), their season comes to a close with a disappointing loss, but Roth said he was proud of the fight his team showed throughout the match.
“We had a good practice and thought we had some good strategies,” Roth said. “We came out strong and were able to beat them and get rolling a bit. We came out slow the next set and let them grab momentum and we just couldn’t catch up from there.”
Roach had a big game for Spotswood with a match-high 21 digs while Atwell did a solid job distributing the ball with 23 assists and Cate Secrist added 35 digs in the loss.
The Trailblazers will now say goodbye to five seniors — Roach, Secrist, Fornadel, Madison Burke and Abigail Garrett — but bring back some young talent next year.
“I have five seniors that I’m going to miss tremendously and have meant a lot to the program,” Roth said. “I’m proud of all of them and what they have put into this program. Ellie and Cate, I will say, they were with us for the state run a couple of years ago, the district championship last year. Tonight will be tough for them, but I hope they’re proud of all the stuff they’ve done for Spotswood and the program. I certainly am proud of it.”
And while Roth was proud of the Trailblazers, Leonard said she feels the same way.
With just two seniors on their roster, the Indians were prepared to struggle this year.
Now just one win shy of a state tournament appearance, it’s evident for Leonard and the rest of the Fort coaching staff that this team is no longer in a rebuild and the time is now.
“We’re in unknown territory with this team,” Leonard said “This team has overachieved from the first day. I’ve been saying that anything we get from here on out is just icing on the cake because they’ve overachieved. We’re going to enjoy every part of the ride.”