WINCHESTER — Millbrook recorded an ace on its first and last serve on Thursday night against Handley, and the Judges didn’t have a whole lot of success slowing down the Pioneers’ serving in between those bookend points.
The Pioneers remained perfect at 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the Class 4 Northwestern District with a 3-0 (25-14, 25-7, 25-19) volleyball win at Millbrook’s Casey Gymnasium, and the Pioneers’ serving was definitely one of the main factors in making that happen.
Millbrook had 17 aces, with junior Skylar Johnson’s 10 leading the way. Johnson had nine of those in the second set (five as part of an opening 7-0 run). Six players total had aces.
The Pioneers didn’t reach their usual goal of getting 90 percent of their serves in (it was 87.5 percent), but they certainly made the ones count they did get in.
“We definitely are focusing on serving,” Millbrook coach Carla Milton said. “We just ask them to put it in play and give us a chance every time. We strive to be 90 percent or better [in terms of getting serves in] every night. If you can serve like that, it’s going to help you win games. So serving is a point of emphasis that we’ve been working on this year.
“We’ve been pretty consistent so far, which I like. I think we can be more consistent with it. I think we’re progressing with it, and as long as that keeps building throughout the season, that will be good for us.”
Coming into Thursday, Johnson had already had two matches in which she had at least five aces, including 12 against Warren County on Sept. 9.
Johnson got Millbrook started with an ace to make it 2-0, but it was the second set where she truly dominated with jump topspin serve. She had aces on each of the first three points, then added two more when the score was 5-0.
“I’ve personally been working on my jump topspin, because I had never done that in a game before this year,” said Johnson, who also had 11 assists and 12 digs. “I’ve always been able to do it, but not consistently. This year I wanted to focus in on that because I wanted my serve to be a strong suit.”
Serving played a role in finally swinging the first set in Millbrook’s favor. With the score 12-11, Handley served long to give to set up the Pioneers and libero Jessica Cleveland (10 digs). The junior’s strong serving stretch, which included an ace, put Millbrook up 18-11.
The Pioneers then won seven of the final 10 points to close out the set. Skylar’s older sister Tori (match-high 15 kills, five digs) had two kills in a 5-0 run to end the first set.
“I thought we settled down on our serve receive,” said Milton of the end of the first set. “It was kind of jumbly there at the beginning. And I thought our net play was really good tonight, and I thought that really helped, too.”
Jordan Weir had a couple of blocks in the first set as part of a four-block night. She had another block as part of Millbrook’s 4-1 run to the end the third set, which also featured aces from Cleveland and one from Autumn Stroop (six assists) to end the match.
In running out to an undefeated start, Millbrook has plenty of reason for optimism right now.
“I think we work really well together as a team,” Weir said. “We’re very cohesive in that we really support each other.”
“I think we have a lot of talent on the team,” Skylar Johnson said. “I think we’re progressively getting a lot better.”
Milton said she’s liked the cohesiveness and grit in her team this year. One of Millbrook’s wins was a five-setter against Heritage in which the Pioneers rallied from 2-1 down in sets.
“I really like how they’ve stuck together,” Milton said. “They grind it out. They don’t want to let a ball drop. Bodies are flying to get balls up in the air. I really like that we’re getting our hands on balls at the net, too. That really helps to slow it down so that our defense can pick balls up.
“All that still is stuff we need to work on to keep going. We’re not even halfway through the season yet. It’s still stuff that we can improve on, but I like where we’re at to this point.”
Handley coach Lindsay Cole said the Judges (1-5, 1-2) did a good job of hanging with the Pioneers in the first and third sets, but she felt her team didn’t do enough to disrupt Millbrook’s hitters throughout the match.
“We just weren’t able to get a block against their tough hitters in the front row,” Cole said. “Defensively, I think we were very scrappy. The girls gave really good effort in the first and third sets.”
Handley lost many of its top players from last year and does not boast a single senior on a 12-player team that features six freshmen.
“We’re just starting to get that varsity experience,” Cole said. “It’s showing progressively step by step on the court. We’re growing as a team, and our juniors are kind of leading the way doing that. I think they’re providing great leadership and positivity for the future.”
Cole has been impressed with the play this season of one of the juniors, hitter Emilie Pifer. She and fellow junior Kate Rudolph had four kills on Thursday (sophomore outside hitter Anna Prosser led the team with six).
“Emilie is stepping into a new role,” Cole said. “She was a right side for us last year, and she’s done a great job becoming a six-rotational player for us. Her defense has really picked up, and she’s kind of our go-to hitter right now.”
Monday: North Hagerstown (Md.) at James Wood, 7 p.m.; Jefferson (W.Va.) at Sherando, 7 p.m.; Handley at Warren County, 7:15 p.m. ... Tuesday: Kettle Run at James Wood, 7 p.m.; Sherando at Liberty, 7 p.m.; Handley at Culpeper County, 7:15 p.m.; Clarke County at Page County, 7:15 p.m.; Fauquier at Millbrook, 7:15 p.m. ... Thursday: Millbrook at Sherando, 7 p.m.; James Wood at Handley, 7:15 p.m.; Rappahannock County at Clarke County, 7:15 p.m.