STAUNTON – Robert E. Lee wants to party like it’s 1999.
Lee High volleyball is trying to channel its inner Prince by winning a state championship Saturday. If it does, it would be the first volleyball state title for Lee, or any area public school, since 1999.
Whitney Vaughn has a unique connection to both teams. She played on Lee’s last state championship team and she is an assistant coach on this year’s squad that will be playing against Marion Senior on Saturday afternoon at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center.
Vaughn has been wearing her state championship ring this season, a source of motivation for the current players who want one of their own. And, when Vaughn needs to flash even more credentials, she can point to the state championship photo hanging on the wall of the Paul Hatcher Gym.
Lee hosted the state championship that season, beating Lafayette for the title. It was great for the team to play at home for the state tournament.
“This gym was packed that weekend,” Vaughn said. “You realize how big of a part of the community you are.”
After Lee, Vaughn attended the United States Naval Academy. She commissioned in the Marine Corps and was stationed in California, serving two tours of duty in Iraq before eventually getting out of the military and moving back to Staunton three years ago.
While gone Vaughn didn’t pay a lot of attention to volleyball in the state, but when she got back to Staunton she was surprised that no other area team had won a state championship since her Lee Ladies accomplished the feat.
After all, there was a time when Staunton-Waynesboro-Augusta County was dominant in the sport.
From 1987 to 1995 Fort Defiance won four state titles. In addition to the 1999 title, Lee High won state championships in 1986 and 1994. Waynesboro won it all in 1996 and Wilson Memorial captured a Group A state title in 1999, the same year Lee won in Group AA.
Stuarts Draft may have the most impressive volleyball resume, reaching the state championship game seven years in a row starting in 1992 and winning three titles.
But then the well went dry. Since 1999, only three area volleyball teams have even reached the state championship match. Two came up short of the title. The third is Lee, which has its chance at making history on Saturday.
Stuarts Draft played in the state championship game in 2012. Facing heavily favored Mathews, the defending state champion, Draft came close to pulling off the upset, but lost in five sets.
Nicki McClure, who coached the team that season, loved all of the talk about how good Mathews was, something Lee is hearing about Marion.
“I love that kind of stuff,” McClure said. “Going in as the underdog you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
Playing at VCU can be intimidating for teams used to high school gyms.
Danielle Wilson was one of 10 seniors on that Draft team. What she remembers most was how nice the locker rooms were. Definitely an upgrade from high school. As for the court, stepping on it for the first time seemed a bit overwhelming.
“It was so big,” she said. “Even the lights seemed weird and bright. It was scary.”
She remembers looking into those lights and having trouble seeing the ball when it was set for her. It took the first set to get comfortable.
Much like Vaughn remembers from her team’s run in 1999, Wilson said one of the best parts of the experience was the way the community, both at school and in Stuarts Draft, embraced the team and cheered them on in Richmond.
“It just kind of seemed like a big deal in a small town,” she said.
Mariah Clark was part of Riverheads’ volleyball team that lost in the state championship game in 2014. She doesn’t recall ever playing one match at such a high level. For her, it’s still a big deal.
“The main thing I remember was looking at my team and telling them that, no matter the outcome, to remember where we are and how hard we worked to get there,” Clark said. “Don’t take this for granted. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
That’s similar to the advice Danielle Wilson has for Lee’s players this year.
“Work as hard as you can,” she said. “And have fun with it.”