Bishop Ireton volleyball bumps toward playoffs

Bishop Ireton volleyball bumps toward playoffs
Coach Bradley Lacey, right, leads the Bishop Ireton High School varsity volleyball team during practice. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

With only four games left in the regular season, Bishop Ireton High School’s varsity volleyball team is nearing the end of a successful season with an overall 14-8 record.

The Cardinals are sitting in third place in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, but the team’s success this season did not come easy. The team came into the season with a new coach, Bradley Lacey, former volleyball coach at Hayfield High School, and a roster composed of mostly sophomores.

Also, unlike every other team in the conference, the Cardinals weren’t able to have a traditional preseason due to construction at B.I. over the summer that impacted the gym where the team practices.

“Where a lot of the other teams in the area had their practice facilities, had their scrimmages and were able to set a routine, we were getting shoved out of the gym every other day,” Lacey said.

Bishop Ireton High School’s varsity volleyball team faced an unexpected challenge early in the season: The team wasn’t able to practice in its own gym due to ongoing construction. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

The team regularly got kicked out of the gym, and parents started to raise concerns about their children breathing in dust and fumes during practice.

Despite the trying conditions, the team adapted, holding tryouts at T.C. Williams High School and conditioning on B.I.’s football field.

The experience forced Lacey and his staff to be flexible and find creative solutions. In some ways, it brought the team closer together, Lacey said.

“It’s actually helped them bond because of the controversy, fighting all these out- side elements,” Lacey said. “I think that’s part of the reason why we’re doing as well as we are, because we have battled back, and we’re a solid team right now.”

Coming in as the new head coach, Lacey knew something had to change. B.I ended the 2018-2019 season 6-21, while, only the season before, the Cardinals had gone 22-9. The massive dip in success was a sign that B.I. may have had strong teams but not a strong program, Lacey said.

“My main focus coming here was making a program, something that’ll last,” Lacey said. “… As a varsity coach, what’s happening on freshman is going to affect you in a couple years, so really you have to build from the bottom up.”

With such a young team, Lacey has focused as much on laying the groundwork for future seasons as he has on the current season, he said.

“It was definitely a big transition year for us with a new coach, and we lost a bunch of seniors last year,” Taylor Wilmot, junior setter and captain, said. “But I think the underclassmen have really stepped up and become a crucial part of the team.”

Senior middle and right Maria Zakhem during B.I. varsity volleyball practice. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

The team has a big sister-little sister program, which pairs varsity players with girls on the JV and freshman teams who play the same position. The program culminated in a Sister Squad Tournament on Saturday that brought varsity players and their little sisters together in a friendly tournament.

On the court, Lacey has worked to leverage what his players have in abundance – chemistry and camaraderie – despite their overall lack of height, he said.

“We just love playing together, and we bring so much energy into the game,” Wilmot said. “We really have a lot of fun when we play and we’re always talking about how when we’re having fun, we’re playing our best.”

“We all get along and we all love coming to practice and like going to games and it’s not like a chore for us,” Maria Zakhem, senior middle and right side, said. “It’s fun, and I think that’s the most important thing you need when playing volleyball.”

(Read more: Bishop Ireton football powers to a strong start)

Many of the players have been friends for years. The team’s tight knit group dynamic and speed have helped the Cardinals take down some of the bigger teams in the WCAC.

“It’s kind of like a smaller fighter beating a bigger guy,” Lacey said. “Get them tired, get your points in and then back out. That’s kind of how we are. We’re a smaller team beating bigger opponents because of the teamwork we have.”

The Bishop Ireton High School varsity volleyball team is tight knit, captain Taylor Wilmot said. The team’s camaraderie and close friendships manifest on and off the court. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

The season has been full of challenges, even after the Cardinals got their gym back. Recent injuries and illnesses have knocked some starters out of the roster. Libero Maddie Rauner is out due to a concussion sustained during a close 3-2 loss to Academy of the Holy Cross.

Wilmot said the game against Holy Cross has become a rallying cry for the players.

“We took them to five last time we played them, and I think everyone gained a lot of confidence from that match,” Wilmot said.

Early wins and close defeats have left the Cardinals in a good place leading into the end of the season. Lacey said that other than improving their defense, the Cardinals are set for success.

The remaining four games, including another match against Holy Cross, should leave B.I. in fourth place leading into the playoffs for both the WCAC and statewide Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association standings, Lacey predicted. His players are even more hopeful.

“I think we do have a real shot for the WCAC at least finals, if not the championship,” Wilmot said. “We can hang with all the teams in the conference. We’re all working really hard to get there.”

Regardless of how the rest of the season plays out, Lacey still has one eye on the future of B.I. volleyball. His team’s majority sophomore lineup has plenty of time to grow, and he’s starting the recruiting process as well. Lacey and the team are running a clinic for volleyball players 14 and younger on Oct. 19 to find the next potential class of B.I. volleyball players, Lacey said.

“Going down the end, you want to go as far as possible, but it’s really more of a springboard for your next year,” Lacey said. “… For me, it’s about building for the future.”

(Read more: Bishop Ireton names new hires)