Ashburn, Va. — The seniors on the Rock Ridge High School volleyball team have been playing together for their entire high school volleyball careers, so a lot of team chemistry and trust has been created among the players. Although they had an opportunity at a region title during the COVID season in 2020-2021 when they were freshmen, the young team fell short and missed a trip to the state tournament, as only the region champion went to the state tournament that year.
Despite already punching their ticket to the state tournament this year, the veteran Phoenix players were not going to let another opportunity at a region championship slip through their fingers, as they shut out Loudoun County—26-24, 25-19, 26-24—on November 2 in Ashburn to claim the program’s first VHSL Region 4C title.
“I’ve played with these girls all the way since sixth grade, and we’re a family,” Rock Ridge senior outside hitter and Dulles District Player of the Year Grace Tucker said. “So to win this in our last year is just a big hurrah on the way out.”
“I’m just happy for them. They deserve it,” Rock Ridge head coach and Dulles District Coach of the Year Buzz Laird said. “They worked hard, especially our seniors. They’ve been in this program for four years. They’ve busted their butts, and they’ve done good.”
The Phoenix jumped out to an early lead in the first set behind an 8-1 run that gave them the largest lead of the set at 11-5. As the game continued, Rock Ridge senior setter Ankita Kamath (32 assists, 1 ace) distributed the ball to all hitting locations to create a balanced offense.
“We start out by establishing the middle so that the blocks close in,” Kamath said. “But as we go further on, then we push it out to the pins so that they can have an easier chance to kill the ball.”
It looked as though Rock Ridge was going to cruise to an easy set-one victory, but the Captains had other plans. They rallied back from behind—thanks to back-to-back-to-back kills from senior outside hitter and Catoctin District Player of the Year Madison LaRue (8 kills, 1 ace, 1 assist)—to even the score at 17-17 and force a Phoenix timeout.
“Energy was the focus because we thrive on energy so much,” Tucker said. “If we don’t have it, we’re just down in the slums. But once we have energy, we’re on fire.”
The Phoenix brought the energy out of the break as junior outside hitter Lola Aguilar (10 kills, 2 aces) and junior middle hitter Rania Lahbibi (6 kills, 1 block) had 2 kills apiece down the stretch. But Loudoun County rallied back again behind a kill and a block from senior middle hitter Madeline Moskal to give the Captains the first set-point opportunity at 24-23. However, two untimely Loudoun County errors flipped the advantage to the Rock Ridge side, and the Phoenix capitalized on it with a kill from Tucker to take the first set, 26-24.
The Phoenix used the momentum generated in the first set to establish another early lead in the second set. Strong service pressure caught the Captains out of system, causing several errors and forcing a Loudoun County timeout at 11-5.
“Our serves are all deadly,” Laird said. “And we just chipped away.”
Although the Captains battled to get back in the set, the closest they came was at 18-17, as Rock Ridge never relinquished the lead. Tucker was dominant in the second set, scoring 7 of her game-high 16 kills to lead the Phoenix to a 25-19 victory.
“Support is definitely what got me here,” Tucker said. “My teammates and family have supported me the whole way. That’s what got me to play hard, have the confidence, and just play the best I could.”
With their backs against the wall after falling behind two sets, the Captains needed to turn things around if they wanted a shot at the region title. They did just that after stringing together a few runs to take a commanding lead in the third set. The defense stepped up as Loudoun County recorded 4 blocks in the third set to slow down the Rock Ridge offense.
“Loudoun County is a good team, and when they start swinging, it’s hard to stop their momentum,” Laird said. “We’ve been in that position before and we’ve learned how to fight through it. I didn’t really have any doubts, but they did get a big lead.”
With the score at 17-10 in favor of the Captains, it appeared as though the match would go to a fourth set. But Rock Ridge started to go on a few runs of their own as Kamath found her hitters and the Phoenix slowly chipped away at the Captain lead.
“We all have skill and we all have talent,” Kamath said. “But it’s just about applying it and communicating together on the court.”
Rock Ridge had cut the Loudoun County lead to just 2 points at 21-19 when the Captains used a timeout in an attempt to slow down the momentum.
“We get this point and then we go on our run, and it’s our set,” Laird told his team during the timeout.
Aguilar came up big for the Phoenix out of the break—recording 2 kills and an ace—to tie it up at 23-23. Although the Captains had set-point at 24-23, a kill from Tucker and another ace by Rock Ridge senior libero Isha Uppalli gave Rock Ridge match point. Very fittingly, Tucker crushed a kill on the next point to give the Phoenix the win, 26-24.
“It’s a pretty big deal because we’ve been playing together for so long, and this is the first time we’ve won a region championship,” Kamath said.
With the win, Rock Ridge will get to host a VHSL Class 4 State quarterfinal match against the Region 4D runner-up Blacksburg on November 11. Loudoun County, who also qualified for the state tournament, will play on the same day against the Region 4D champion James Wood in Winchester.
“I’m just proud,” Laird said. “Every time we step on the court now, it’s something they’ve never done before.”
“We’re just so ecstatic about it!”
—Rock Ridge outside hitter Grace Tucker