Top-tier talent returning for Jamestown and Warhill volleyball teams

Contact Reporterkholtzman@vagazette.com

The Jamestown and Warhill volleyball teams have made VCU's Siegel Center their home away from home the past several seasons in postseason play.

Warhill has appeared in three consecutive state finals, winning two straight while Jamestown enters 2016 searching for its first state title in school history after reaching the state tournament five straight years including last season's 4A championship match.

A return trip to Richmond seems likely for at least one of the schools in 2016 with Jamestown returning four college recruits, three of them Division I-bound and 6 feet or taller. Warhill, in its last season in 3A before making the jump to 4A, has more rebuilding to do with four starters gone from last year including star player Nicole Mulligan, who put forth a sterling performance in a dominant 3A championship win over Roanoke's Hidden Valley as well as most of the Lions' other marquee matchups.

Elsewhere, Lafayette has a new coach, Bruton returned an all-state player and in the independent ranks, Walsingham Academy lost only one senior from last season.

Jamestown

The Eagles had about as good a season as a team can have without winning the whole thing, collecting Bay Rivers District, Conference 18 and 4A East titles before falling to mighty Loudoun County in the 4A final.

Although Jamestown was competitive in the championship match, losing 3-1, Loudoun County continued its remarkable dynasty run with its eighth state title since 2007.

Immediately after the match, Jamestown coach Tom Stephenson said, "I've got a ton of talent coming back next year. I hope every one of these girls will just dedicate and commit themselves to winning a state championship next year. And I think they will."

South Carolina recruit Ellie Popelka (6-2) and UNC Greensboro recruit Maria Esch (6-0), both seniors, lead the way along with junior Emma Schriner (6-3).

Each was named first team all-state last year and setter Maggie Viniard also returned for her senior season after earning first team all-conference honors and committing to Division III Marymount University.

Stephenson also named setter Madison Kolda as a potential standout who could play on the next level.

Stephenson expects outside hitter Madison Pettengell to be a major contributor along with left-handed attacker Rysleigh Reeves, who is poised for a breakout season.

"Hannah Piatak and Audrey Luedde are my two defensive specialists and are competing for the libero position," Stephenson said. "I also have a freshman libero in Angelina Spirito that is very talented. Sarah Hartnett has had an outstanding preseason and as a sophomore is pushing upperclassmen for playing time… Shelbi Jordan has improved tremendously from last season and could push for playing time as an outside hitter or an opposite hitter."

Jamestown lost three seniors from last season including libero Gen Allison and setter Maddie Spence.

Loudoun County lost five seniors including 4A Player of the Year Taylor Borup and another first team all-state player. Not that it matters, necessarily. The Raiders lost seven players from the 2014 season going into last year.

"The expectations for (Jamestown) are high and they have to be ready to take the best shot of every team we play," Stephenson said. "This is a very intensely competitive team and they will be ready. Most importantly, I want them to enjoy the experience of playing together throughout the entire season."

Warhill

The Lions lost four starters from last year but return a trio of first team all-state performers in seniors Cori Clifton (6-1) and libero Jewel Walters and sophomore Chloe Wilmoth (6-0).

Clifton is a Georgia Tech recruit and Walters will play for VCU.

Also returning is senior middle blocker Alexis Pollard, who played a key role in the state championship win last year.

"We are senior heavy this year which I fully expected," Warhill coach Greg Koon said, "but no, I did not know who my starters were going to be let alone who would make the team.… In order for Warhill to have success again, we are going to have to become efficient and minimize unforced errors. We need to limit how many points we give away and make teams beat us."

Last year, Koon credited Mulligan for elevating the team. When she was on, Warhill was on. She averaged four kills per set last year on 424 total kills and finished with 90 serving aces (0.8 per set) and 203 digs (1.9).

But there were also questions for Warhill entering last season after star Alex Koon led the team to the school's first state title in 2014. Ultimately, the Lions came together and continued their recent run of state tourney success.

Lafayette

First-year coach Rachel Tighe inherited six returning starters including Abby Oren, an all-4A East selection, and Kelly Carroll, who made all-conference.

The Rams lost six seniors from last season's team that was eliminated in the conference playoffs by Grafton, but feature eight upperclassmen and three players 5-10 or taller.

Tighe also named sophomore Briar Ownby-Connolly as a potential standout for Lafayette, which won its first two matches this season.

Tighe is a Fredericksburg native and a 2015 College of William and Mary graduate who coached the Rams' JV squad last year and has also served as a Williamsburg Volleyball Club head coach.

"We have many new players who haven't played at the varsity level before so we have to get them used to a higher- tempo game," Tighe said. "The returners are great role models for these new girls and everyone seems to mesh well."

Bruton

Junior Gabby Calloway, Bruton's only returning captain, already had more than 500 career kills under her belt entering the season and will be one of the local players to watch after garnering 2A honors in 2015.

The Panthers lost three players from last season and returned 10.

Bruton coach Kevin Doloresco said, "We have a very tight-knit group that has a variety of classes which I am hoping will use that chemistry in becoming a very competitive team that will scrap and claw for every point."

Bruton lost one of its most experienced setters from last season, and all-region second teamer Aaliyah Bartlett.

"To try and fill her shoes, we have returning sophomore Alexa Woolson and newcomer, freshman Jackie Tassara," Doloresco said. "We lose a bit of height on front lines, but gain a bit more quickness with Makayla Johnson and Ayanna Millner, a junior and sophomore, respectively."

Doloresco expects passing specialists Neryssa Donnell, Hannah Hogan and Lauren Walker to be improved and for captains Tabitha Oliver, a junior, and senior Mykael Johnson to have breakout campaigns.

Walsingham

Coach George Bottles has four returning likely starters including six seniors and two juniors.

Projected standouts for the Trojans, who missed out on the state tournament last season, are middles Chelsea Marcombe and Cat Williams as well as Caroline Rosack, who is expected to contribute defensively.

"The sophomores have enough experience from last year we should be better overall," Bottles said. "If the younger group can trust their abilities and congeal as a group, we should have a satisfying season and a realistic shot at making the state tournament. Youth, however, is very unpredictable, especially in match play."

Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.

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