By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Sawyer McElhatton)
The T.C. Williams volleyball team enjoyed its best season in program history last year with a 21-6 record, but a big reason for the success was star outside hitter Kate Whitmire, who now plays for James Madison University.
In the absence of Whitmire — and other big hitters who also have graduated — the girls team has undergone a transformation. And the makeover was immediately obvious to Mount Vernon coach Anthony Black on Tuesday night, when the Titans traveled to play the Majors.
“Overall, I think they’re better than they were, but, of course, they lost Whitmire,” he said. “When they had her, you had to figure two-thirds of the passes were going to go through her.”
While T.C. was known for power and aggressiveness last year with a scoring strategy that ran through Whitmire, the team stresses finesse this season with the ability to spread the ball around.
“It’s like if you have a great three-point shooter versus Shaquille O’Neal,” said Titans head coach Michael Burch. “It’s just a matter of determining how you’re going to go about winning.”
The Titans beat Mount Vernon 32-30, 25-17, 24-26 and 25-13. Neither squad was entirely at full strength. And in a night filled with long rallies and lead changes, neither team could put the other away early.
The marathon opening set between the Titans and Majors went back and fourth, extending long into extra play. During an exhausting rally with the score tied 29-29, which saw diving plays on both sides, Mount Vernon’s Sarah Moore hit the ball just over the net — only to be met by T.C.’s Audrey Dervarics.
Tapped by both players, the ball settled on top of the net. It spun there for a fraction of a second, as the crowd screamed for the ball to drop on one side or the other.
Finally, the ball fell onto T.C.’s side. The Titans returned it but ultimately lost the point, giving the Majors a seemingly decisive 30-29 edge.
But the Titans weren’t finished just yet. T.C. tied the set yet again on a block by sophomore Olivia Devereux and then took the lead 31-30 after the Majors couldn’t handle a serve by sophomore Alexus Foreman.
The Titans secured the set 32-30 after a return by Mount Vernon went out of bounds.
T.C. won two out of the three following sets, clinching the win over Mount Vernon. And Dervarics finished with 19 of the team’s 38 assists on the night.
“It might not have been our best match, but it was fun,” said T.C. senior Emma Goldberg, who finished with 15 assists.
For Burch, the early-season win marked a good sign of progress as his team gets used to their new style of play.
“Even though we had six girls returning who were on varsity last year, it’s a totally different style,” he said after the win. “Tonight, you saw more finesse. We tipped, we rolled, we tried not to make errors and just keep the ball in play. We saw some long rallies, but that’s OK. It’s our style of play.”
Burch, who previously coached at the Division I college level, is in his fourth year leading the Titans. He said this season is the first time he’s sought such fundamental changes in play.
So far, the strategy shift seems to be working. Before the Titans win over Mount Vernon, the team advanced to the gold bracket of the Stallion Stampede tournament before losing to undefeated Madison.
“[Burch] takes whatever strengths we have and tries to capitalize on them,” T.C. assistant coach Melanie Bradshaw said. “Last year, we had big hitters, so we were more geared toward utilizing them.
“This year, we’re smaller. He takes the strengths of what we do have, which is ball control, so we can win that way.”