BUFFALO GAP – Elizabeth Ashby is familiar with successful volleyball programs.
Following a playing career at Fairmont State University in West Virginia, where Ashby was a setter for the Falcons, she got married and eventually moved to Augusta County.
Her first coaching experience was as an assistant at Stuarts Draft, the most successful volleyball program this area has ever seen. Starting in 1992, the Cougars played for the state championship seven consecutive seasons. Ashby joined the team during the last few years of that incredible stretch, helping guide Draft to one of the three state titles it won and coaching in a couple of other state title matches.
So when she arrived at Buffalo Gap at the tail end of the century, Ashby understood what it would take to build a program that could play at that level. It would take time, and a few starts and stops at Gap, but the coach helped get the Bison to a state tournament.
The area is full of schools with volleyball success. Five of the seven schools in Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro have won state volleyball titles and another, Riverheads, has played for a state championship. But this year was just the second in its history that Buffalo Gap played in the state tournament semifinals. The first time was in 1995. It took 21 years to get the program back to that point and it was due in large part to the leadership of Ashby, The News Leader’s 2016 All-City/County Coach of the Year.
“Coach Ashby pushes our team each day to be the best that we can be,” Gap senior Kaylee Mills said. “And she never gives up on us.”
This is Ashby’s fourth-straight season as the Bison head coach, but not her first time coaching at Gap. She also coached four years starting in 1998 before stepping down to raise a family. She returned a few years later to coach the jayvee program, then left again only to return five years ago, first as a jayvee coach before taking over the varsity program in 2013.
That first year back as the varsity head coach wasn’t easy. The team only won two games, but Ashby could see the potential. It helped that she had two impressive freshmen that season, Emily Hanger and Abby Flint. Together the threesome would endure a pair of losing seasons before finally seeing double digit wins last season and a state tournament run this year.
But the impact she’s had on her players is bigger than just wins and losses.
“She meant everything to our team, always reminding us to be humble,” Hanger said. “She reminded us how, yes, volleyball seems important now, but it’s the bigger picture that matters more. She wanted us to be good people along with being good players.”
Hanger said it wasn’t unusual to see players stop by Ashby’s classroom at Buffalo Gap even if they weren’t in her class. They just wanted to see Ashby, tell her “hi” and be around their coach. Ashby may take more pride in that than in the winning. She said off the court, Buffalo Gap volleyball was a family and, to her, that’s something that really can’t be understood simply by looking at numbers.
“Coach encourages us to spend time together outside of volleyball and to build strong relationships with each other,” Mills said. “She has built such a great relationship with our team this year and I believe that those relationships had a lot to do with the success of our team.”
Of course, no one at Buffalo Gap will tell you that winning wasn’t also important. Ashby thinks the two — strong relationships and winning games — are difficult to separate from one another.
“That’s 75 percent of the battle, I believe,” Ashby said. “If they get along off the court, they get on the court they work together. That’s what this team did.”
The Bison finished the season 22-4, winning the Shenandoah District and Conference 36 championships along the way. Gap was also Region 2A East runner-up and lost in the 2A state semifinals to eventual state champion Marion Senior.
It was, by far, the most successful season in Buffalo Gap volleyball history, a season that Ashby didn’t see coming. Oh, she knew that this year’s team would be good. She just wasn’t sure it was state-tournament good. But as the wins started to pile up — Gap only lost twice in the regular season — she started believing. The entire team did. A “We Believe” poster hung in the Bison locker room and the players bought into making history this year for the program.
An early-September win over Robert E. Lee, a team most people expected to make a deep postseason run, was a clue to Ashby that maybe, just maybe this team had the ability to still be playing in mid-November.
When it finally came to an end against Marion, Ashby had conflicting emotions. Like her players, and especially her four seniors who had played their final volleyball match as Bison, she was sad. At the same time, however, she couldn’t help but think about just how much this team had achieved and that made her very happy.
“What we accomplished on the court was amazing,” Ashby said. “It was super exciting for Buffalo Gap.”
(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that this season was Buffalo Gap volleyball’s first appearance in the state tournament. However, Buffalo Gap was also in the state semifinals in 1995. The story has been corrected to reflect this information.)