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The volleyball event Saturday at Patrick Henry High School was called the Tournament of Champions.

Champion?

Until last year, Rockbridge County’s program had never been one.

In any tournament.

Ever.

That changed last fall when the Wildcats won the Valley District tournament. Then they took the Region 3C crown.

Then Rockbridge found itself leading perennial VHSL Class 3 power Hidden Valley 2-0 in the state quarterfinals before the ride ended with a 3-2 loss.

The Wildcats are using the near miss as motivation in 2018.

“Just having that taste, having that ‘almost there’ moment and letting it slip away definitely made us push even harder than last year,” senior co-captain Kennedy Clemmer said.

Cracking the upper echelon in VHSL volleyball isn’t easy.

The established programs seem to be on top year after year and they set a high bar.

Rockbridge’s climb began in 2016 when the school hired Amanda McCoy as its head coach after she had previous stops at William Byrd, Liberty and Roanoke Catholic.

McCoy came to Lexington with one goal in mind.

“I don’t like to just be playing if we’re not going to be competitive and win,” she said. “I think the program wanted to be competitive. It was just a matter of putting a different spin on things.”

The blueprint involved a technical and psychological rebuild.

“Passing form, attacking, looking for opportunities, teaching the kids patience,” McCoy said.

“One thing I focus on with our kids is their mental state and being confident in what they do.

“We just kind of changed the perspective of what we wanted to accomplish. We went from being a little bit competitive to how do we become ‘the team.’ ”

Senior co-captain Jaden Harrison said the players on the 2016 team sensed things would be different under McCoy.

“She brought a lot more structure,” Harrison said. “She taught us how to hold each other more accountable and not just go through the motions.

“Wanting to win, she definitely brings it out in us.”

Certainly the formula requires individual talent.

Sophomore outside hitter Jaydyn Clemmer trained in Colorado this summer as part of the A2 USA Volleyball pipeline program.

A number of Wildcats travel regularly to the Roanoke Valley in the offseason to seek higher-level competition.

Rockbridge County’s move from the Blue Ridge District to the Valley District and its placement in Region 3C instead of the stronger 3D helped.

In the Blue Ridge, the Wildcats were stuck behind Lord Botetourt and Northside.

“It opened an opportunity for us,” McCoy said. “We were winning more.”

Thus, it was easier for the players to buy in to the system.

“It built a lot of faith in her, like, ‘She knows what she’s doing,’ ” Harrison said. “It was like, ‘Wow, we can do this.’ ”

The challenge is now to maintain the standard on an annual basis.

With three starters gone from the 2017 team, Rockbridge brought an 11-1 record to PH, where the Wildcats went 1-2 with a win over Cave Spring and losses to emerging Class 4 power Blacksburg and a strong Class 2 threat in Giles.

Potential Class 3 postseason foes Lord Botetourt, Hidden Valley and Northside also were among the 12 teams in the house Saturday.

“We knew we would be out in front of teams that we would potentially play,” McCoy said. “It’s nice to be in an upper-level tournament despite whether you win or lose.”

  • Lord Botetourt and Blacksburg each finished 4-0 in the event, which was shortened to one day after Friday’s matches were canceled. Both teams had three-set victories over Musselman (W.Va.). Liberty Christian took Botetourt to three sets, while Northside took Blacksburg to the limit.
  • Giles finished 3-1 with wins over Rockbridge, Patrick Henry and Northside.

Robert Anderson has been the high school sports editor of The Roanoke Times since 2001.