This story was corrected on Oct. 14, 2012. An explanation follows the story.
In a league long dominated by Stone Bridge and Langley, there’s a new team looking to put its stamp on the Liberty District volleyball landscape this season. Fairfax finished in the middle of the pack last year, but a talented senior class that has jelled to the tune of a 16-6 record so far this season has the Rebels firmly in the mix with just three games left until district tournament play rolls around.
Fairfax players and coaches, however, aren’t limiting themselves to district success. Even with 17-0 Stone Bridge looking unstoppable and Langley staying solid at 14-3, the Rebels are not afraid to aim higher.
“I told the team from the get-go: states. That was our goal in the preseason,” Fairfax coach Tyler Freiheit said. “There’s too much talent on this team to just be satisfied with a district win or a regional win. I’m talking all the way, and I think they have the ability and talent to do that. It just comes down to their will.”
Indeed, willpower might be the only thing separating Fairfax from a title run, as the Rebels have plenty of seasoned talent roaming the court this year. Six seniors fill the roster, including Megan McKenzie, a 6-foot-one outside hitter and setter who committed to play at Radford last February. Senior Arisa Chavez and junior Neddie Byron are two of the best middle blockers in the area, and senior defensive specialist Geneva Tomajko is one of the district’s leaders in the digs category.
A hard-hitting player and a vocal leader, McKenzie epitomizes the blend of talent and competitive hunger that Fairfax players and coaches are working to solidify as the playoffs draw near. A 3-1 home loss against Stone Bridge on Tuesday reminded them that there remains much work to be done before that level of mental toughness is reached.
“We’re a really well-rounded team. It’s the mental stuff that we’re still working on,” McKenzie said after Tuesday’s loss. “I think we’ve kind of hit the middle of the season where we kind of relax, but as soon as Thursday comes we’re going to be right back up full speed and crush everyone.”
Most teams would have felt at least a small sense of accomplishment for stealing a set from undefeated Stone Bridge, which had only dropped five total sets in the 15 matches prior to Tuesday’s contest. Fairfax, however, was anything but pleased with the result. The Rebels felt they might have won the match had it not been for their missteps late in the second set. Leading the Bulldogs 23-20, Fairfax proceeded to drop the next five points and dig themselves into an 0-2 hole.
Freiheit attributes that slump in large part to an air of invincibility that surrounds Stone Bridge, which has captured the last four Liberty District titles. With reigning region player of the year Ryan Ackermann crushing kills left and right, the defending Northern Region champion Bulldogs often look like a unit that can’t be defeated.
“It’s just a total mindset of a lot of teams that, ‘Hey, they’re Stone Bridge. They’re going to beat us,’” said Freiheit, a 30-year-old Chantilly alum in his first season as head coach after six years as an assistant. “My team needs to get rid of that mindset and realize that they’re better than Stone Bridge.”
If there’s anyone who doesn’t fear Stone Bridge, it’s McKenzie, who plays club volleyball in the Northern Virginia Volleyball Association on the same team as Ackermann and Kelly Stancik, as well as against several other Stone Bridge players. The versatile McKenzie, who plays middle blocker at the club level and setter and outside hitter for Fairfax, knows the Bulldogs have their vulnerabilities, too.
“I’ve played club with almost every single girl on that team, so I know their shots and tendencies, but it’s always hard to get the whole team to know that and do it,” McKenzie said. “We may just need more preparation. We’ll get them in districts, easy. We’ll come back and beat them in districts.”
With games against South Lakes, Langley and Thomas Jefferson — all teams with winning records — left on the regular season schedule, the Rebels can’t concentrate on the postseason just yet. But if they can summon the type of mental fortitude pushed by McKenzie and Freiheit, perhaps Fairfax will enter November with a shot at the school’s first volleyball district title since 2002.
Correction: Fairfax's season record so far is 16-6.