Even for a program that routinely churns out winning seasons, last year’s run was one to remember for the Langley volleyball team. The Saxons finished the season with 24 wins and just six losses, their best record since going 23-1 and advancing to the state championship in 2007. One of those 24 victories included a five-set win against perennial powerhouse Stone Bridge in the regular season finale, and another featured a five-set decision that handed the Saxons their first Liberty District title in five years.
Yet Langley’s players and coaches aren’t satisfied with last year’s achievements. For one, they failed to take home the region trophy, succumbing to a vengeful Stone Bridge squad in the championship match. The Saxons also fell short at the state level with a 3-0 semifinal loss against Kellam, the eventual state champion for the third year in a row.
With five of six starters back from last year’s squad, Langley is aiming to rekindle the glory days of 2007. Some members of that team currently serve as assistants under longtime coach Susan Shifflett, and they remain the last Langley players to remember what it feels like to win a region title. If all goes according to plan this fall, this year’s batch of Saxons could enter the second semester with the same feeling under their belts.
“We’re definitely setting our expectations high this year,” senior setter Alex Andrejev said. “I think we have the potential to go pretty far this year with the talent that we have, and we’re all working really well together right now. I think the biggest thing is taking it one game at a time. Dropping that game against Atlee was probably good for us to keep that motivation there.”
That game against defending state finalist Atlee, part of the Saxons’ five-game appearance in the 16th annual Virginia Volleyball Showcase in Richmond over Labor Day weekend, resulted in a 2-1 defeat, still the only two sets they have dropped so far this season. Their straight-sets victories in the other four games led them to a gold group title in the prestigious tournament, perhaps a harbinger of greater glory to come down the line.
The Saxons followed that triumph with a 3-0 win against Potomac Falls last Tuesday, then a 3-0 win at Hayfield Monday night that saw them go up 25-14, 25-11, 25-8.
Shifflett acknowledged that while getting back to the state final this year would be huge, it wouldn’t quite be the same with longtime district rival Stone Bridge now out of the picture. VHSL realignment sent the Bulldogs to Class 5A and Langley to 6A, meaning they will compete for different state championships for the first time.
“If you win it, I think it’s a little bit of a bummer from the standpoint of it would have been nice to win it when there were three state champions instead of six,” Shifflett said. “But if we win, then I’ll be happy. There’d be a big banner up there and I’d be happy.”
To get there, Shifflett will rely on a group that remains largely intact from last year. Four seniors graduated from that team, paving the way for the arrival of three freshmen this season.
“It’s kind of weird,” she said. “Even though we’re younger, we’re older. They’re all a year older, and they’re still together. So you just have that base with each other.”
Langley is so well-rounded that opponents will have a hard time keying in on any one player. The middle of their lineup - a relative weakness last year - is now one of the unit’s greatest strengths with the return of senior middle blockers Caroline Mannon and Lexy Donaldson. Rachel Andrejev, a junior, is back to flank them as an outside hitter, as is Jessica Donaldson, whose size and smarts make her one of the team’s strongest players even as a sophomore.
Jessica and Lexy Donaldson are one of two sister pairings in the Langley lineup, the other being Alex and Rachel Andrejev.
“It’s kind of nice because my sister supports me and wants me to do well and cheers for me,” Jessica said. “So it’s something different than when we’re at home when she’s yelling at me.”
Langley’s depth puts them near the top of the area’s pecking order, but the path to the top won’t be an easy one. Standing in their way will be Madison, an undefeated team coming off a first-place finish at the Cassel’s Invitational, as well as other strong local outfits like McLean, Fairfax and Chantilly. Strong opposition also lies beyond regional boundaries, even if Kellam and Atlee have been thrown into Class 5A.
“They’ve got to get better because there are some teams in the state that are very good,” Shifflett said. “If we don’t get better, then when it comes down to when it really counts, it’s not going to be there.”