Softball state championship caps banner year for Warhill girls sports

Contact Reporterkholtzman@vagazette.com

Its ninth year of operation almost in the books, the standard for athletic excellence at Warhill High, especially for girls, continues to climb.

Two years ago, there were no team state championship banners hanging in the Lions' gym. Soon, there will be three, thanks to the softball team's 3A title earned last Saturday in Lynchburg that followed back-to-back volleyball championships in 2014 and 2015.

Softball provided the final punctuation on a 2015-16 campaign that produced more than a dozen district, conference, region or state titles for Warhill teams including the volleyball and softball state championships.

The common thread in the starting lineup of those state championship squads is Jewel Walters, who has been a member of a combined six state tournament teams in her Warhill tenure between the volleyball (3), basketball (1) and softball (2) programs. She closed her junior year with a conference title in each one of those sports for the Lions.

"The first time we won states for volleyball my sophomore year, that was the hypest I've ever been," Walters said, "and after that, winning states was just like winning another game to me. I know that's weird."

Maybe it's not so much "weird" as it is Walters and her teammates growing more acclimated to winning. For Warhill's volleyball and softball programs, making states, if not winning the crown, has become the standard.

Walters has appeared and started in a state volleyball final each of her three seasons as libero, made the state semifinals two years in a row with the softball team as an outfielder, and played point guard for the Lions' basketball team, which reached the state quarterfinals in March.

"I think we've set the highest bar possible: winning states," Walters said. "For basketball, we set the bar high because we haven't won states for that. For volleyball and softball, we either get to states or we're disappointed if we don't make it to that point because we've been there before."

Walters was the leadoff hitter for softball and was followed in the starting order by three fellow basketball starters: sophomore Olivia Schulz, junior Kieran McClure and junior Keely Rochard.

That multisport versatility is very much a theme throughout Warhill girls athletics. Consider that coach Bingo Brungot's basketball team featured several college recruits, although none of them for basketball. Walters will play volleyball at VCU, Rochard softball for Virginia Tech, Shaye Doherty soccer for Christopher Newport University, and Kayla and Jessica Cooke field hockey for Newberry College in South Carolina. McClure and Schulz will be among those to follow with future commitments, if they so choose.

The Cookes were also vital members and starters on the conference-champion soccer team that only missed the state tournament by a game after helping lead the field hockey team into regionals for consecutive seasons.

Warhill softball coach Tom Bunn believes Walters and Schulz both have Division I softball talent – and neither currently even plays year-round.

"I love having athletic kids because if you just get a bunch of good athletes," Bunn said, "they can play multiple positions for you and they help you score in a variety of ways."

With runs at a premium against stellar postseason pitching, they become even more important. And Bunn, who values athletes who can make "game-speed decisions," wants those types of players at third base when it comes time to lay down a sacrifice squeeze bunt, for example.

"I've always liked softball players who also play basketball and I tell people there's a direct correlation, in my mind," Bunn said. "Kids that you think have good softball IQ usually play or at some point, played basketball. What I think basketball brings to the softball field is the ability to go off script."

The writing has been on the wall for this level of success at Warhill for the last four years, at least.

The volleyball and softball teams achieved the most noteworthy glories, and other 2015-16 girls triumphs included conference titles in tennis and cross country, and region runner-up recognition for swimming.

"Now this is the eighth graduating class (for the school)," Warhill Athletic Director Dan Mullen said. "It has been an outstanding year with this class. I think this class has had tremendous success over the years and this is kind of the culminating year for them, athletically."

Future graduating classes may have some more celebrating in store, yet.

That will surely be the goal for the softball team. The Lions will lose at least a few starters from their lineup, but the meat of the order will return along with the ace pitcher, Rochard.

"I don't know if the outcome of the season would have been the same without those two seniors (Makayla Fannin, Hayley Schulz)," McClure said, "but I think that we are returning a lot of players who are also really skilled and I think that we can make another run next year."

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

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