By Mark Eaton | [email protected]
The streamers and confetti have been swept up and the cheers are receding from the Alexandria City High School varsity volleyball team’s Nov. 19 Virginia state championship win.
But for players like Milan Rex and Chloe Wilmot, and first-year Varsity Head Coach Danielle Thorne, the successful season has left them with fond memories and a sense of accomplishment that will last much longer. The Times spoke with several players about their 32-2 season – from how they prepared to how they’ve grown to what they’ve taken away.
On Dec. 9, the Virginia AllState teams were announced. Rex was named Virginia Player of the Year, Wilmot was named to the All-State First Team and Thorne was named Coach of the Year. Rex, the Occoquan Region Player of the Year and MaxPreps Virginia Player of the Year, and Wilmot, First Team All-Occoquan Region, were the only returning starters on an inexperienced squad that returned only four players from last year’s team.
“I think it [the season] was a huge accomplishment just because a lot of us did not expect it to happen,” Rex said. “We just kind of played carefree and … built up that mental toughness during the season which showed when we matured emotionally, as players, off the court more than we did on the court.”
Growing the team
According to Wilmot, the team’s mental fortitude increased as the season progressed.
“Our mental and emotional toughness just grew tremendously and as we got farther into the season we were always playing as the underdogs. No one was expecting us to win those games, much less win the state championship,” Wilmot said. “We were just playing to have fun and enjoying every moment of being there.”
Wilmot said that losing the third and fourth sets in the state tournament finals made the achievement of winning the fifth and deciding set more satisfying.
“It takes a lot of commitment and dedication to come to practice every day, and also focus,” Rex said. “You can’t just come to practice and hope to get better by going through the motions. You actually have to want to get better.”
Harder than it appears
High level competitive volleyball is very different from picnic or recreational volleyball. Wilmot and Rex are from families with competitive volleyball traditions. Wilmot said that most people do not realize how difficult high-level volleyball is.
“When you watch at a high level people make it look so easy, but it takes a lot of time,” she said.
Volley players rotate, or change positions, before each point. Wilmot and Rex had to know “everybody’s rotations, where they’re supposed to be on the court, not overlapping, and be able to tell people where to go and what to do when they don’t know,” Wilmot said, adding that a team can lose a point for a rotation error, or “being called out of rotation.”
Rex, a skilled offensive player, or hitter, is a setter on her club team. The setter positions the ball for offensive shots by hitters close to the net. Wilmot, the Titan setter, amassed a career record number of assists – the pass that leads to the point.
The team’s resilience was exemplified in the four epic matches it split with Fairfax County athletic powerhouse Robinson Secondary School. The Titans had lost twice to Robinson, including a loss in the ACHS gym which was packed with fans. They defeated Robinson in the Patriot District finals in four sets.
The team prioritized forming ties with each other both on and off the court.
“We created a really good bond off the court,” Wilmot said. “All the little things, getting food, the bus rides, hanging out before practice, all those little things helped us gel.” The team organized “families” composed of seven or eight players from the freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams to promote bonding.
“I think the girls on the team did a great job at managing their time outside of volleyball,” Rex added. Wilmot said that the volleyball team had one of the highest GPAs of all ACHS athletic teams.
Wilmot said that she would tell younger players to “ask questions and don’t be scared … there is a lot of nervousness and tentativeness” as players move up from the freshman and junior varsity teams.
According to Rex, playing with confidence is imperative. “You’re not going to get anywhere if you’re scared of the ball or if you’re scared to get better,” Rex said, noting that the two losses to Robinson were “just a reason for us to get better.”
Rex said that her volleyball experience applies off the court.
“My leadership has jumped to another level. I feel like last year I was expected to be a leader but I had a lot of other people on the court who were leaders as well,” Rex said. “This year definitely took a lot more from us to be able to lead the team. [I was] able to work with other people and know their needs and know what you have to give up to better the team.”
“Both of them were really leaders in their play – they’ve always been leaders in their play – but emotionally they had to be another level of leader this year because we had a lot of young girls on the team,” Thorne said. “I was lucky because I did not have to call as many timeouts as maybe I would have. When disaster was striking you could see the two of them in the huddle calming everyone down. [It] was really lucky for me as a first-year varsity coach being able to trust two of the leaders on the team to help each other – they looked to each other when they needed things. They trust each other so much.”
A coaching perspective
Thorne coached the ACHS freshman team before moving up to varsity this year.
“This was my first year coaching [the varsity] and we did graduate nine people [from the previous year’s team],” she said. “Coming into the season everyone did have lower expectations of us. I really knew this was a good group of girls and I knew that we could do well.”
Thorne, a 2009 graduate of what was then T.C. Williams High School, also teaches mathematics at ACHS.
“I really enjoy working at the school and it’s nice to be able to see the girls throughout the day. Two of the girls are actually in my classes right now,” Thorne said. “It’s fun to see them in their academic setting versus the volleyball setting. I love being in [the] building and being able to coach here as well.”
The road ahead looks bright for both the players and coach. Rex and Wilmot plan to play volleyball in college. Rex has committed to the University of California at Santa Barbara and Wilmot has signed with Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
And Thorne, the Titan graduate, teacher and now state champion coach, looks forward to working with her next group of players.