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The South County volleyball team stared down its opponent this past Monday with bitter feelings that had been boiling beneath the surface for nearly a year. Though this only was a regular season contest, the Stallions hungered for some semblance of revenge against Lake Braddock, the team that denied them a Patriot District title in a five-set decision in last year’s district semifinal.

South County (19-5) entered Monday’s contest undefeated in district play this season, and they weren’t about to tarnish that streak on Senior Night before a packed home crowd that included a raucous student section consisting largely of members of the school’s football team. After dropping the first set 22-25, the Stallions rallied to capture the next three sets and bump their winning streak to 11 consecutive games.

Still, South County players and coaches are wary of falling prey to the same trap that bit them last year, when Lake Braddock lost 3-1 against the Stallions before returning the following week to beat them in the district tournament.

“We’re going to prevent that from happening again this year,” South County coach Trista Barnhart said. “Every game we talk about being happy and taking the celebration with it, but we’re never satisfied. We’re always working to the next win because there is a next win.”

Barnhart holds plenty of familiarity with Lake Braddock, where she coached for four seasons prior to taking the helm at South County in 2011. She helped several Bruins develop into strong volleyball players, including first-team all-region setter Kyra Rodi and 6-foot-4 middle blocker Natalie Butler, who Barnhart remembers recruiting when she saw the towering freshman walking down a school hallway.

“I have a great relationship with Lake Braddock, and I’d love to keep it that way,” Barnhart said. “But as soon as we walk on the court it’s competitive.”

The Stallions got off to a sluggish start against their district foes Monday, missing seven serves during a rough first set. They trailed for much of the second set too, but an ace by sophomore setter Amber Ragunas capped three straight South County points that gave them a 25-23 second set victory.

Ragunas, who ended the night with 39 assists, used her deft touch to keep the South County offense running smoothly throughout the game. Her combinations with junior outside hitter Allison Bruder brought the Lake Braddock defense to its knees time and time again.

“I think we’ve come together a lot more as a team this year,” said Bruder, who finished Monday’s game with 20 kills. “We had expectations from last year, but we started fresh and we came in as a new team this year knowing that we want to start a new legacy.”

Despite last season’s district tournament loss to Lake Braddock, the Stallions still advanced to regionals, where they swept Westfield in the opening round before bowing out 3-2 against Yorktown the next day. They began this season with another five-set loss against Yorktown before hitting a skid of three consecutive defeats a week later.

Since then, Barnhart’s squad has won 15 of its last 16 games, building on a team chemistry that relies on every player on the court rather than try to continually feed the ball to one person.

“I think what we were really lacking at the beginning of the season was confidence,” said senior libero Dana Robertson, who recorded 22 digs Monday. “We really needed to prove to ourselves that we were good and that we fit in this district. It feels awesome.”

The Stallions have done well to keep that confidence afloat after their loss of senior middle blocker Macey Lutz, who was hospitalized the day before the team’s Oct. 16 game against Woodson to get her appendix removed.

“It was and is a big loss for us, but I think it really shows my team’s strength,” Barnhart said. “They’re filling positions that maybe they’re not totally comfortable with. They’re coming together like this and winning huge games.”

The result of Wednesday’s final regular season match against West Springfield, which occurred too late for press time, could do nothing to change South County’s No. 1 seed heading into this week’s Patriot District tournament. The Stallions are going after their first district title since 2009, when they also captured the Northern Region title. With the VHSL set to implement districting changes next year, South County sees this as a final opportunity to leave its mark.

“We want to win that last Patriot District title,” Barnhart said. “They’re changing up the conferences and doing all that, so this is the last year. We want it. We’ve said all year, we want it.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com