|Senior Amy Gottschling dished out 30 assists for Stone Bridge in a four-set loss to James Madison on Sept. 29 in Ashburn. Gottschling is considered the vocal leader for the 11-1 Bulldogs.—File Photo/Rick Wasser|
Even though it was fielding a youthful squad with an occasional propensity for slow starts and unforced errors, the Stone Bridge High School volleyball team rolled through the first 11 matches of its season with nary a blemish.
But facing off against another unbeaten from James Madison High School in a Liberty District showdown Sept. 29 in Ashburn, those errors and slow starts finally caught up with them. The Bulldogs suffered their first defeat of the season, going down in four sets, 25-22, 24-26, 25-17, 25-21.
"We've been trying to get going a little sooner, come out a little stronger," said Stone Bridge veteran coach Jill Raschiatore, whose 12-player roster holds just four seniors. "We don't quite have the ball control that we've had in the past, and that's something we're trying to work through. But they're young, and they're learning."
Coming in, the Bulldogs had surrendered merely four sets from their 11 matches, and claimed fame by snapping Loudoun County High School's 49-match win streak Sept. 3 in a five-set decision at the Raiders' place in Leesburg.
Their September success on the road continued with a victory at Oakton Sept. 18, and a total sweep of three other teams -- including crosstown rival Broad Run -- at the one-day Albemarle Showcase in Charlottesville Sept. 20.
That résumé earned Stone Bridge (11-1) some lofty rankings among high school programs throughout the Washington metropolitan area.
But Madison (17-0) possessed similar accolades, having emerged triumphant from its first 16 matches before making the trip to Ashburn.
The Bulldogs and Warhawks came out firing at each other, as Heidi Engebreth and Shannon Williams traded punishing kills with Madison's Jayne Carter and Natale Zanellato.
Neither side was able to apply effective defense versus the other's offensive power, and the points came rapidly. The teams were tied 11 different times during the opening stanza before the Warhawks used a 3-0 run to take it.
The second was much like the first. The front lines pounded away at each other, resulting in plenty of full-swinging spikes and nine more ties. It was the Bulldogs' turn for a set-clinching 3-0 run, culminated by two straight block-kills off the outstretched arms of sophomore opposite hitter Gabby Scudder.
The third was a series of momentum swings. Stone Bridge surged out with an early 6-0 run, the longest run for either team on the night. But Madison soon overpowered that Bulldogs advantage and crept out to a 20-12 lead, maintaining that margin to the end.
Down a set at home, the Bulldogs started the fourth hot with another 6-0 run as Madison supplied the unforced errors. That margin soon dissolved, and the squads were knotted three times in the teens and again at 21-21.
But the visitors suddenly came up with four straight, the last one on their 57th kill of the match, and the young Bulldogs team was beset with defeat for the first time this season. The emotionality of the moment was evident in the players' eyes.
Raschiatore, the only head volleyball coach in Stone Bridge's 14-year history, has taken the Bulldogs to the state tournament six times, plus 10 regional appearances. While disappointed at the result, she seemed not to give the air of a leader overly concerned with the outcome of a single match.
"I told them, if you're going to lose one match, I'd rather it be now in the middle of the season rather than at the end of the season."
The coach noted that the accuracy and efficiency of her team's passing still stand improvement, as could its setting. Those two crucial offensive aspects were noticeably inconsistent on the Bulldogs' side of the court.
Stone Bridge displayed a variety of finishing weapons, as six different players were credited with kills. Engebreth led with 14 while fellow senior Williams knocked down nine and Maddie Ashwell had eight. Scudder and Caitlin Zura combined to score 10 kills.
Williams managed to get up for six blocks. Another senior, Amy Gottschling, dominated the assist column with 30.
Raschiatore discussed the roles played by her only four upperclassmen.
"Amy is the vocal leader for us, whereas Shannon is more a leader by example," the coach said. "Heidi prefers to show the younger kids by doing something right and keep doing it right, and Bianca [Mostert] is a very positive person and is always talking even when she's not in the game. So they each have their different role, which is neat."
Versus Madison, the backline of Mostert, with 10 digs, and Abby DeVido, with 13, was often called upon to be defensively active, as the fastballs from Madison's hard-hitting duo of Zanellato and Carter came frequently.
"They were hitting very well, actually going over our blocks," said Raschiatore of the Warhawks tandem, who combined for 39 kills. "You can't teach the kids to be taller. But we needed to do a better job of getting on offense and trying to get them out of their system. We struggled to do that all night."
The coach pointed out that notwithstanding her team's winning, its molding has been and remains an ongoing process.
"Playing in a tough match like that, you're going to get better from it. It's a matter of regaining composure and fixing what was wrong," she said. "If you're going to have a time to learn and grow, this would be the time."