RICHMOND — Warhill coach Greg Koon wasn't sure if his girls would give the state championship trophy the kind of lift he had in mind. So he took matters in his own hands, hoisting the Virginia High School League prize well above his head with arms outstretched as the powder-blue clad Lions contingent roared in celebration.
Warhill (30-1) rallied from a 1-0 match deficit Saturday to defeat Roanoke's Cave Spring 3-1 (20-25, 25-13, 25-19, 25-18) in the 3A volleyball final at VCU's Siegel Center, giving the school its first state title in any sport.
The trophy celebration was Koon's way of saying thanks to the vocal Lions supporters.
"'This is for you, for all the support you guys have given us all year,'" said Koon. "These girls here played their hearts out tonight. They earned this."
The sting of Warhill's loss last year to Hidden Valley in the state championship never faded, even after a different result was achieved.
Koon and junior Nicole Mulligan each noted after the match how much better it felt to be on the winning side.
That experience, time already spent on the big Siegel Center stage, proved invaluable for the Lions.
"We really used that to our advantage," said senior Alex Koon, who led Warhill with 20 kills, "to not only let the newer girls know what it was going to be like but also to prepare mentally ourselves to really work hard and to get the energy up."
Not having been there was a factor, too, according to Cave Spring coach Tamalyn Tanis. The Knights fell in the quarterfinal last season.
"I think the stage was new," she said. "We haven't been here for a couple of years. As hard as you practice for that, and as hard as you try and just focus on keeping it simple and the execution of your game, it's still an adjustment."
Cave Spring (27-3) was still a formidable opponent powered by 6-foot-2 junior middle blocker Piper Roe and twins Tessa and Charity Klimaitis. The sisters, measuring 5-feet-11 and 5-feet-10, respectively, were two of three seniors on the Knights' roster.
Roe finished with 11 kills and six blocks, pacing Cave Spring early on but unable to find a rhythm in the fourth set.
Greg Koon put Mulligan on Roe as the match went on.
"We knew that that was their moneymaker and we had to shut her down," said Greg Koon. "When Nicole wasn't there, Alex was there. We basically have been practicing to have our outsides commit block on her. If she was going to kill the ball, she was going to have to work to do it."
Despite the experience from last season, Greg Koon said nerves got the better of his team in the first set — although getting off to slow starts has been the norm for the Lions this season.
Mulligan tallied seven straight service points, including two aces, to stretch Warhill's second-set lead to 21-12 before senior Megan Harrigan closed out the game with an ace.
Mulligan had 10 aces in the Lions' semifinal win over Turner Ashby.
"Nicole's jump serve has come on strong," said Greg Koon. "It's been particularly important here at the end of the season."
Warhill gave up an early lead in the third set before outscoring Cave Spring 10-4 to end the frame.
Jewel Walters added 13 digs for Warhill and Harrigan and Cori Clifton each had 19 assists.
Mulligan notched the match's final point with a block of a Charity Klimaitis swing on the heels of a Colby Norris serve.
Norris, a senior, said Warhill's unity keyed the team's success throughout the season.
"We all have a very tight bond with each other," she said. "And I think that really helps with the team chemistry on and off the court."