Tuesday night’s volleyball match looked pretty ordinary on Oakton’s 2012 season schedule.
Sandwiched in between 22 other contests, the home contest against Yorktown seemed like just another hurdle separating the Cougars and the Concorde District tournament.
No one donning red and yellow was treating it that way, though. In the eyes of Oakton’s players and coaches, the Yorktown match had the potential to shape the entire season. A home-opener against a tough opponent would test the mettle of a team that lost its best player — 2011 Concorde District Player of the Year Kelsey Wildman — to graduation. With a new coach and high aspirations, Oakton’s performance Tuesday night would let them know with more certainty about whether or not they were ready to go after the first district title in school history.
After a gutsy 3-2 comeback victory, one thing seemed clear: They’re ready.
“I told them [Tuesday], ‘You showed at the NVVA Invitational you were good. If you want to show that you’re ready to compete for a regional championship, you’ve got to beat teams like Yorktown,’” Oakton coach Dan Courain said. “You’ve got to show the fight, and they showed it [Tuesday].”
Oakton entered the match riding high off a stellar performance at the previous weekend’s Northern Virginia Volleyball Association Invitational, where it finished in first place in a 16-team field that included area powers such as South County, Woodson and Lake Braddock. Senior outside hitter Misa Mori was voted the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, while senior opposite hitter Tara Wilkins, senior setter Emma Olson and junior libero Christina Williams also made the All-Tournament team.
But against Yorktown, the Cougars didn’t always look like a title contender. A deflating 26-24 loss in the first set shook the team’s confidence and seemed to catch them off guard — perhaps unsurprising when you consider it only was the second dropped set through six matches this season. Oakton players headed to the bench looking discouraged, a bad sign when contrasted with the exuberance displayed by a Yorktown side feeding off the dominant net play of junior middle hitter Hayley Molnar.
“I told them to stay up and stay together,” Courain said. “That’s been the theme all along, especially in the scrimmages. We know it’s a long season. ... We’re not going to have all ups; we’re going to have downs. We’re going to have matches like that, and the key is to stay together. If we stay together as a team, we give ourselves a chance in November.”
The Cougars rallied for a 25-18 win in the second set before dropping the third 25-22. The seesaw battle swung fully in Oakton’s favor in the fourth set, which went to the Cougars 25-13. From there, the home side climbed back from a 5-3 deficit in the decisive fifth set, reeling off seven consecutive points to bring the frenzied crowd to its feet before eventually claiming the set, 15-10.
Just as Courain had hoped, Oakton had responded to adversity with the kind of team-oriented approach often associated with champions.
“We played really bad in warm-ups,” said senior outside hitter Abby Mills, who finished with eight kills and three blocks. “When we did that, I knew coming out that we were just not going to start off well. We just needed to stick together as a team and get past that.”
Oakton’s resilience came from its players on the court, but much of the energy that propelled it was brought about by its first-year head coach. After serving as an assistant the past two seasons, Courain took over for Steve Drumm and set out to invigorate the program with a buzz it had been missing. In addition to bringing his trademark passion and restlessness to the sideline, Courain made sure other changes were made to get everyone, including parents and fans, more involved in the action. He introduced music to the matches and pushed for Cougar noises to come over the speakers after every Oakton point.
According to Courain, those types of small changes reinforce crucial qualities separating good teams from great ones.
“It’s energy, never letting yourselves get down, re-focusing on any point,” Courain said. “You see a lot of times at this high school level, if anything goes wrong a lot of times things can spiral out of control. It’s knowing that you’re staying together, keeping up that high energy, and also being able to trust everyone and knowing whoever goes into the game is going to get the job done.”
The team’s emphasis on the importance of playing as a unit largely has risen from the departure of Wildman. Although Wildman was critical to the team’s run to the district championship match last year, her exit has forced the Cougars to open up a more balanced offense.
“We work a lot better as a team this year,” said Mori, who finished with 15 kills and 10 digs against Yorktown. “I think we’re able to use that to our advantage and just keep each other up and do well together.”
The win against the Patriots improved Oakton’s record to 6-0, putting it within striking distance of the school record 7-0 mark set in 2005. Several teams, including defending Concorde champion Chantilly, are ready to challenge Oakton’s quest for district supremacy. Still, the Cougars can’t help but hunger for revenge against the team that knocked them out of the second round of the Northern Region tournament last year.
“We’ve put Stone Bridge on our board as the team we want to go after,” Courain said. “Our No. 1 goal first is to win the district, but if we can play with Stone Bridge, that’s when we know we’ve made it. It’s bold, and I know we’re probably not there yet, but if we keep playing with high energy, hopefully we’ll get there.”