No. 1: Albemarle boys basketball
With all due respect to the other great teams this year, of all the playoff runs, one had just a little more buzz, some added excitement to it. The Albemarle boys basketball team got the area hyped up when it qualified for the Group 5A tournament with its win over George Mashall in the Region 5A North tourney. That was just the set up though. When the Patriots travelled to Hampton and took down the Crabbers 65-54 and shocked the home the crowd, that was the year’s biggest moment.
The largest public school in Central Virginia had never been this far before in boys basketball. Getting to the state final four was a monumental task for Austin Katstra, Jake Hahn, Myles Adams-Yates and company. And in that final four they ran into eventual 5A champion Potomac. Albemarle started and finished strong in that game, but a run in the second and third quarter allowed the Panthers to win 66-57 and end the Patriots’ magical run.
Between the run in the playoffs and a regular season that saw great battles with Western Albemarle and Charlottesville, Albemarle boys basketball had everything you could want in a season. And having pushed through to the final four for the first time, it’s one that Patriots fans won’t soon forget.
No. 2: William Monroe baseball
Calling it an improbable run is a discredit to the talent on the Dragons roster. Nonetheless, while Monroe entered the season feeling as though they could make waves at the Region 3A level and push for a spot in Group 3A tournament for the first time in program history (the Dragons qualified for the Group A, Division 2 tournament in 2012 and 2013), aspiring and executing are two very different things.
When the Dragons beat Colonial Heights in the Region 3A East semifinals, they had their state bid. But after falling to Poquoson in the Region championship game, they drew the tournament favorite to win it all in Turner Ashby. Monroe embraced the moment and saw Cody Spencer throw arguably his best stuff of the year (and that includes his perfect game to start the regular season) to lead the way to a 3-0 win and punch a ticket to the state championship game. The Dragons might have fallen 3-2 to Rustburg in the championship, but their poise in the playoffs was huge. Between Spencer, R.J. Payne, Dylan Shifflett and more than a handful of others, Monroe put together one of the best seasons in program history. And it’s a program with a lot of history, so that’s saying a lot.
No. 3: Albemarle boys soccer
The loss to Western Albemarle in penalty kicks in April, a loss quickly avenged in May — that’s the struggle Albemarle faced. The rest, from start to finish, was shutout after shutout, blowout after blowout. Jeff Balnave, one of the most modest coaches in the area, guessed way before the season began that this team had the potential to be there at the end. He knew, his team knew, and they executed. The most successful team in program history won a state title in 2012. This team matched that and paired it with a regular season that was nearly perfect.
With a senior class led by Brendan Moyers, Griffin Coffey and Jake Gelnovatch, the Patriots cruised through Conference 16 play, barreled through Region 5A North play and then in the state semifinals, destroyed Hickory 4-0. For a Group 5A victory lap, they beat Falls Church 1-0 to wrap up an unbelievable year. And on top of that, in a state tournament that was awfully physical and ridden with yellow and red cards, the Patriots kept their cool and won the VHSL sportsmanship award to ice the cake. State champions, and with class, Albemarle will hard pressed to top what they did in 2016. The bar is set insanely high, as if it wasn’t already coming into this season.
No. 4: Western Albemarle boys soccer
Just two years removed from a state title, the class of 2016 from this program set out to make one last run. By Western’s standards, the 2015 was brief, too brief. Yes, the program had a new head coach in Milo Oakland, but the longtime assistant was hardly some new hire as he had served a large role for former coach Paul Rittenhouse for quite some time. So with Oakland now running the show and the team embracing a sense of urgency that only a large group of seniors can bring to a season, the Warriors were all business this spring.
What made Western’s season special were the hiccups. The ties to Charlottesville, Fluvanna County and Monticello kept this team grounded. A win over then unbeaten Albemarle in mid-April gave the Warriors promise, a glimpse into just how good this team could be. After cruising through Conference 29, Western looked poised to do the same in Region 3A West play. It wasn’t so easy as the Warriors just narrowly won their semifinal and then fell in the championship to Blacksburg.
However, Western didn’t let a little adversity get in the way of a good story. With a trouncing of James Monroe in the Group 3A semifinals, the Warriors got a rematch with Blacksburg and pulled through for a 2-1 win for a second state title in three years. It was a case of what happens when 14 seniors pick up the rest of their team and plow ahead, bumps and all.
No. 5: Goochland volleyball
Strong regular seasons have become standard fare for Goochland’s volleyball squad, but making a strong playoff run, that was something the Bulldogs still needed to find. The region tournament had been a major stumbling block in the past, but even that hurdle couldn’t trip up Goochland this year. The Bulldogs had perhaps the area’s most dominant run in 2015-2016, losing no games and no matches as Goochland went 27-0 and won the Group 2A state championship. The Bulldogs lost just one game in the playoffs before the state title match, but they proved they were up to that challenge, rallying from two games down to Marion to reel off three straight victories and close out a flawless season. From start to finish, the Bulldogs were fantastic in fall, with Madelyn Ott, Maddie Parker, Josie Summitt, Casey Spencer and Alexis Wiggins powering the run.
No. 6: Woodberry Forest football
The 2015 campaign was by far the most difficult schedule that coach Clint Alexander and the Tigers have faced during his tenure. An opening season win over Bishop McNamara set the table for what was arguably the best season this program has ever had given the level of competition. Road wins over Benedictine, Bullis and Liberty Christian stood out. While a perfect regular season run was marred by an overtime loss to Avalon, the Tigers bounced back to win the Prep League title for the third straight year.
With Lindell Stone leading the way at quarterback and receivers Zach Roderick and Terrell Jana exploiting secondaries, this was the most succesful offense in program history. Stone’s 3,494 passing yards with 39 touchdowns to just eight interceptions stands the statistic that shows just how dynamic this offense was. And with Evans Riviere running for over 1,000 yards, this was no one trick pony.
Woodberry went up to Alexandria for “The Game” with Episcopal sporting a 9-1-0 record. And while the class of 2016 will always wonder just what might have happened if “The Game” permitted overtime, the fact that the Tigers dug out of a 14-0 hole against a loaded and amped up Maroon speaks volumes about the kind of team Woodberry had. Yes a 14-14 tie to an arch rival is a bitter pill, but the bigger picture is that the Tigers rolled out the best schedule they possibly could have, and came up with a wildly impressive 9-1-1 record.
No. 7: Miller School girls basketball
Two straight state titles is a tall order in private school girls basketball, but a single core of players can come together and get it done for two years as juniors and seniors. But a third straight championship? That’s extremely difficult, especially when you have that strong core and they graduate. Miller’s girls basketball team essentially underwent an overhaul this season and spent much of the first half of the year trying to work out some backcourt issues, specifically related to not having an establishers point guard after having a string of great ones like Taylor Sandidge and Lexi Mallory. But Secret Bryant came around in time late in the year to help power the Mavericks to a third-straight state title run, emerging as the kind of point guard that a talented group of forwards like Imani Bryant and Micah Maloney needed. The Mavericks beat Nansemond Suffolk in the title game, winning 46-41 to close out the year peaking at exactly the right time to cap another state championship campaign.
No. 8: Covenant field hockey
Covenant’s field hockey program has had some strong success over the years, but what the Eagles did in 2015 was particularly impressive. With a squad built around a pair of stellar sophomores in Maddy Fagan and Lizzy Shim, Covenant found a tremendous supporting cast built from a roster with just two seniors and two juniors that managed to beat every local program, public and private highlighted by wins over STAB and Group 3A state semifinalist Western Albemarle, en route to a state final four run. Whether it was Santinga McLaughlin in goal for her first year as a keeper, seniors Liz Llera and Danielle de Jong proving to be versatile presences or Megan McGlothlin and Abby McCartney providing two more scoring threats to complement Fagan and Shim’s potent production, Covenant proved to be a well-rounded, challenging opponent night in and night out. The Eagles’ run ended at the hands of a loaded Fredericksburg Academy squad that went on to win the state title, but that was long after they’d already made a huge mark on the local hockey scene for the year.
No. 9: Albemarle girls soccer
Albemarle’s girls soccer team is among the area’s best year in and year out. But each season before 2016, some manner of heartbreak or circumstance has visited the Patriots at some of the worst times, derailing hopes of a state tournament berth. That changed with the 1-0 breakthrough against Briar Woods in the Region 5A North semifinals, giving the Patriots a spot in the region championship game and a state semifinal berth. It wasn’t a flashy cast that made this year’s breakthrough, as Division I talents Jazzy Loredo and Carmen Thomas had departed after graduating in 2015. Instead, it was Sunny Gelnovatch, the midfielder who can be whatever Albemarle needs her to be, who helped shepherd the Patriots to new heights. She helped spark a blowout win over Western Albemarle in the two rivals’ first meeting, a win that made it clear that the ceiling for this year’s Patriots was higher than once thought. There was also Brooke Bauman, the electric creator, goalie Aiyanah Tyler-Cooper who didn’t surrender a goal in district play (18 shutouts on the year) and leading scorer Hannah Eiden. Throw in Leticia Freitas, Megan Schantz and strong depth beyond them, and you get a pretty strong package capable of making an incredible run. That incredible run ended in the semifinals against Mills Godwin, but it may have opened up a new era of success for the Patriots, an era that has a blueprint for how to get to the sport’s final weekend.
No. 10: William Monroe girls basketball
Sometimes a great season doesn’t end in the state tournament. Sometimes it’s about the turnaround. It’s about the difference between transforming from an also-ran into a contender like William Monroe girls basketball did this year. The Dragons’ coach Jess Stafford talked extensively during the year about the fact that what looked like an overnight success, wasn’t. That’s almost always the case. Still, the Dragons made a huge jump in wins and put together a run to a Conference 28 championship and finished just short of a state tournament berth in a challenging Region 3A East, losing a heartbreaker. Sam Brunelle’s long-awaited arrival was perhaps the biggest factor, but she found a seasoned senior class and a willing supporting cast in Makayla Morris, Kristin Manz, Lindsay Knights and Kristen Shifflett. She also found a running mate in Dajour Strother, who seized an opportunity any power forward would enjoy in playing alongside Brunelle and was likely the area’s most improved player. See that’s the thing too. If Monroe keeps buying in, if Brunelle keeps developing, which seems to be foregone conclusion, maybe one year soon, one of these Monroe campaigns will end in a state tournament. Or with a state title.