“We always let our younger ones tag along with us. This is not going to be new territory for any of them,” Gate City coach Amy Reed said.
The same applies to the opponent the Lady Blue Devils will face in Friday’s VHSL Group A state semifinal match.
Making their sixth straight Group A Final Four appearance, the Lady Blue Devils (23-1) will cross paths with Strasburg (25-1) for the third year in a row at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The rematch is set for noon. Bath County and Mathews will slug it out in the opposite bracket at 2 p.m. The championship match is set for 9:30 a.m. Saturday.
Call Friday’s semifinal the deciding match in a best-of-three series. The Rams overtook Gate City in five games in the 2007 state championship match. Last year, Gate City swept Strasburg in the finals.
“At this level, I want to face the best. And I think Gate City is definitely one of the best programs in the state,” Strasburg coach Suzanne Mathias said.
After losing most of its state championship roster, the Rams arguably overachieved last season. Not likely this year.
Two of Strasburg’s senior floor leaders — Jenna Smoot and Stephanie Conde — were with the Rams in 2007. Smoot, a 6-foot middle hitter, averages 2.4 kills per game, 1.3 blocks per game and has a .472 kill percentage. Conde, a 5-8 outside hitter, averages 1.1 kills and 1.5 blocks.
Jaclyn Ayers, a 5-6 outside hitter who doubles as a setter, averages 1.4 kills and 1.1 blocks.
“I feel that we’re pretty strong and playing good volleyball right now,” Mathias said. “I have an idea how (Gate City) is going to cover the floor, block and hit. Some of that may have changed a little bit with the group they have now. I’m looking forward to playing them.”
Gate City appears to be clicking on all cylinders — and the Lady Blue Devils have a lot of cylinders to click. Junior outside hitter Ashton Dougherty leads the team in kills with nearly 300 this season.
Despite a profusion of youth, all the Lady Blue Devils attackers are deadly. Dougherty has a .528 kill percentage. Senior middle hitter Brittany Simpson boasts a .525 ratio and freshman middle hitter Erica Fugate has a .509. After that, freshman outside hitter Santana Bishop (.447) and senior opposite Lindsey Burke (.444) round out a lineup that can keep the pressure on opponents.
“We make sure we have attackers. You can’t rely on one or two players. You’ve got to have all-around game,” Reed said. “We prepare our kids to attack the ball and play the ball wherever they’re needed.”
The Lady Blue Devils always strive to play fast, but this is the fastest, quickest squad Gate City may have ever put on the floor.
Junior setter Callie Sloop has done an outstanding job directing the traffic after the graduation of four-year starter Chelsea Spivey. Libero Ashlee Mustard, meanwhile, has been the go-to-girl on the back row.
“Callie has worked hard and she doesn’t have an easy job with the variety of attackers she has to set. They’re all different styles of hitters,” Reed said. “In big games, Ashlee has stepped up and taken control of the back row. She’s done a super job taking care of those big hitters, and she’s a good serve receiver.”