— The first volleyball meeting of the season between Warhill and Lafayette Aug. 30 marked the opening match of the 2016 campaign for both teams.
It was a 25-23, 25-19, 25-20 win for Warhill, the two-time reigning 3A champion.
One day short of a full month later, the Lions (11-4) swept the Bay Rivers District regular season series against Lafayette with a 25-17, 25-14, 25-12 win Thursday to improve to improve to 9-1 in the district.
"We're further along than we were a month ago," Warhill coach Greg Koon said. "… We have a lot of new blood on the floor, so we're just trying to get them caught up skill-wise and volleyball IQ-wise."
Koon's comment is a snapshot of the Lions' quest to repeat the magic it summoned a season ago in following the program's first state title in 2014 with its second. Entering 2015, Warhill worked to rebuild without the services of standouts Alex Koon and Colby Norris. The Lions succeeded in large part because of the emotional spark plug and offensive firepower of Nicole Mulligan.
Mulligan, who graduated last year, was aggressive, vocal and led by example through her excitement. Koon said that was infectious, and he is looking for a couple of players to step up and replicate that.
"She was definitely a good leader," said Cori Clifton, a 6-foot-1 Georgia Tech recruit. "Every year we've lost contributing people but we've managed to find new people and new people step up and help the team out."
The cupboard wasn't close to bare, with the likes of seniors Jewel Walters, Clifton and Alexis Pollard returning along with sophomore Chloe Wilmoth.
Junior varsity call-ups Allison Faber, a junior middle blocker, and sophomore setter Carrie VanLeliveld are among the new varsity players figuring prominently in the reloading project. Faber leads the team in blocks and VanLeliveld, third on the team in assists behind Clifton and Wilmoth, has been playing the sport for less than two years.
Clifton led the Lions Thursday with 12 kills, 14 assists, nine digs, and three aces. Also standing out were Wilmoth (13 kills, eight assists, eight digs, five aces), Walters (17 digs, four assists) and Pollard (six kills, five digs, two aces).
Wilmoth closed the first set with a kill and served out the final eight points of the match, ending with one of her handful of aces.
Left-handed swinging Clifton stood out in the second set with a thunderous kill to make it 17-12 and later combined with Pollard at the net for a crushing block to end the frame.
"The first time we played Lafayette I know a lot of girls were nervous because it was their first varsity game," said Walters, a VCU recruit. "Now, I think the feelings have definitely settled down. We're more confident in ourselves and everything we do."
Warhill's only district defeat was to first-place Jamestown, 3-0. The rematch against the Eagles will come Oct. 11 at Warhill, which also dropped three matches in the competitive Endless Summer Tournament in Virginia Beach to 3A Blacksburg, 5A Princess Anne and Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania.
Last year, Warhill showed clear progress as the season wore on including besting Jamestown after being swept in the early part of the season. By the time the state playoffs rolled around, it was clear the Lions were rolling.
"It's a marathon," Koon said. "We're looking to peak at the right time and hopefully that's in three, four, five weeks from now."
Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.