Abby Mills’ ponytail serves as an emotional thermometer during some of Battlefield’s volleyball matches.
The hair tie creeps higher on her head as the stakes rise in a game.
So with the Bobcats’ 24-set winning streak on the line Thursday, Mills kept moving that ponytail up as she coached against Patriot during the third set at home in Haymarket.
“It was like right on the top of my head,” Mills said with a laugh. “I was very nervous.”
The Pioneers led by two points late in that set, but the Bobcats finished on an 8-3 run to win the match 25-15, 25-19, 25-22 for their ninth consecutive victory with eight of those wins via three-set sweeps. So they have a 12-2 record while Patriot stands at 11-8.
“I’ve never seen people who work harder and care more,” Mills said of the Bobcats. “So it’s awesome that all of their hard work actually gets reflected into the good record.
“The girls are just absolutely phenomenal,” the second-year coach said. “They make [volleyball] the best part of my day every single day.”
By beating Patriot, Battlefield also took sole possession of first place in the Cedar Run District standings by improving to 7-1 with two matches remaining. The Pioneers’ loss dropped them into a tie for second at 6-2 with John Champe after they won the 2018 and 2017 district regular season championships.
The Bobcats haven't lost a match since Sept. 17 against Champe, 3-2, and they haven't lost a set since beating James Madison on Sept. 23, 3-2, making for that 24-set streak.
“I hope we keep putting up the numbers,” libero Ella Yates said. “It’s fun. It’s showing how much we’ve been improving.”
The Bobcats’ loss to Champe was part of a mediocre 3-2 start to the season, but they have since composed a 9-0 run.
“The girls just took a nice mental swing and started realizing we can actually win,” Mills said. “The atmosphere kind of changed to a winning atmosphere versus a hoping-not-to-lose atmosphere.”
The Bobcats hope to soon carry that attitude into the Class 6 Region D tournament, in which they lost during the first round last season to Washington-Lee after winning the Cedar Run district tournament title. Battlefield’s entire staring lineup returned from that 2018 team, which lost only one senior.
In fact, the talented Bobcats will lose only one senior again at the end of this season in setter Kat Jenks.
“I think we have a lot of potential,” Yates said. “We’re really young. We have the rest of this year and all of next year to get to states; win states.
“I just think it’s our connection and friendship that makes us go,” she said. “We’re all really, really close friends off the” court.
Yates led the Bobcats to victory in the second set Thursday with an eight-point service run that turned a 13-13 tie into a 21-13 lead. That run included an incredible four consecutive aces.
“She was in the zone and just went off,” outside hitter Emma Morris said.
“I saw a spot that I wanted to go to,” Yates said, “and I just kept building up my serving momentum.”
She helped Battlefield finish with 12 aces as outside hitter Julianna Quintero and middle hitter Merom Arthur produced three each.
“We can’t really put ourselves in that position where Ella has to step up and carry the team for us like that,” Mills said. “But I’m glad we actually have the ability [to amass aces] when we need to.”
Yates’ eight-point run began with a stuff block from Arthur and a Patriot hitting error. Then Yates’ third serve clipped the top of the net and gently rolled over into the Pioneers’ court for a point.
Her next three aces were less serendipitous as she placed them well between Battlefield players, followed by a Quintero kill. So Yates finished the night with 13 points on 16-for-17 serving.
“She’s a very impressive server,” Patriot coach Katie Swanson said. “I love being a part of watching great volleyball and I love watching great players.
“As a receive team you have to be able to make those quick adjustments,” she said, “and tonight we just weren’t able to.”
Yates also had a nice service run late in the third set that turned a 19-18 deficit into a 22-19 lead. The final point of that streak featured the highlight of the night as defensive specialist Carsen Carroll made consecutive diving digs to keep a rally alive.
On her second lunge, the ball popped off of Carroll’s hand to Jenks, who made an unorthodox redirect of the ball to Quintero for a kill.
“It just warms my heart having the girls give every single effort for every single point they can,” Mills said. “It shows their heart and passion for the game that they’re willing to throw their bodies on the floor.”
In addition to Carroll’s defense, Battlefield got three blocks by Arthur, who also had five kills. Quintero and Morris, meanwhile, led the Bobcats with 11 kills apiece, while Hillarie Adams, their leading hitter this season, finished with three.
“It’s nice that I know my setter’s not in her head thinking she has to force it to one player every single time; that she has three great options no matter what,” Mills said. “That really allows us to spread out the other team’s block.”
Two of Battlefield’s hitters are NCAA Division I recruits with Quintero committed to Pepperdine’s beach volleyball team and Morris committed to Stanford’s beach team (pending academic requirements).
They helped Jenks finish Thursday with 24 assists.
“Our hitters are amazing,” said Yates, who is committed to Oregon’s beach team. “It’s awesome because I know I can put a pass up and Kat will give us a super-nice set and we can always rely on our hitters to get bangers."
For Patriot, meanwhile, Makenna Alejo had 20 assists with 14 kills from Zahra Flowers and 11 from Ashley Casey.
Early in the second set, Casey had six consecutive kills for the Pioneers to give them a promising 11-10 lead.
“She is the backbone of this team,” Swanson said. “She gives everything that she has, no matter what. And he pushes her teammate to get better.”
Nicole Epstein and Valesca Ramirez added four blocks apiece while Hannah Nugent and Flowers had two aces each.
“The energy, the effort, the enthusiasm – everything was there,” Swanson said. “You always would like to win in the end, but it just wasn’t in the cards for us tonight.”