It wasn’t so long ago that the gym walls at Wakefield Country Day School (WCDS) were a little bare as far as championship banners go. It’s a different story today, however, as numerous Owl-red banners now adorn the whitewashed walls — helped along by the varsity volleyball team who recently won their fifth straight division championship.
The team has compiled an impressive 80-25 record over that five-year stretch, including a two-year span, in 2010 and 2011, in which they lost only three games. (The Lady Owls finished the 2010 season at 16-1, losing only to Wakefield School; in 2011 they went 19-2 with losses to state-ranked Highland School and Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy. None of those schools, athletic director Mike Costello points out, are regular opponents and play in a division above the Owls.)
The Owls have also racked up some impressive individual achievements, as senior (and fifth-year starter) Kim Pankow was again named to the first-team all-conference team (five is apparently the Owls’ lucky number, as it’s Pankow fifth straight honor. “She’s the only Division II player to do that,” beams Costello.)
Other honors went to junior Maeve Dale, who was named second-team all-conference for the third straight year; Ashlyn Ramey, who received her first second-team nomination; and sophomore Julia Weir, who received an honorable mention to cap off her varsity season.
Being the five-time defending champions has created its own set of expectations, however. “Make sure people know how scary it is!” Weir said during a recent interview with half the team. “We have a legacy to uphold now,” she added, drawing nods and agreement from the rest of the team.
“I think what helps us out the most is that it’s not just relying on one person [to do everything],” said Ramey. “We all do our jobs equally well — and when we do that, we’re unstoppable.”
That sentiment is backed up by the Owls’ coach Suzanne Zylonis, who’s now in her 10th year of coaching volleyball and fresh off her fifth-straight Coach of the Year award. “This year’s team is the most talented, by far . . . [but] they’re all so evenly tempered — there’s no hotshot here,” Zylonis said proudly. And while that has resulted in fewer individual awards, Zylonis said it’s helped create a cohesive team.
“My coaching is programmatically driven and focused on continuation,” Zylonis said. She focuses on creating repetition beginning in fifth grade, when students are first eligible for the volleyball teams, so that by the time they reach the varsity level, they’re already entrenched in the sports’ intricacies. “It helps creates a groundswell of success.”
Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, WCDS switched from the Delaney Athletic Conference Division I to Division II five seasons ago, much the same way Rappahannock County teams switched to a new Virginia High School League conference this season.
Such a move, by both schools, allows them to compete against similar-sized schools, though Costello and Zylonis are quick to point out that’s far from the only reason behind the Owls’ success. “I think it definitely helped,” Zylonis admits. “Before our team was sort of middle of the pack — not that we ever use excuses. They’re just as capable today as they were then. But now they believe they can do it, and that goes a long way toward success.”
This newfound winning culture has had a noticeable improvement on the number of participants on lower school teams, Zylonis and Costello said, as more kids want to hone their skills in preparation for varsity. To wit, several of the varsity players help out with middle school and J.V. practices, further helping their future teammates.
“I’m always looking three years ahead,” Zylonis said, “and three years from now I think we might suffer a little bit of a dip [after most of this year’s team has graduated] . . . They’re lamenting Kim Pankow’s loss already, but they underestimate their own development.”
The Owls are going to have to rely on that development if they want to win a sixth title, because, as the team is well aware, the rest of the DAC is focused on beating them.
“The other [Division II] teams are starting to get a lot better though,” said team member Kendall Carroll. “We’ve added competition,” she adds, proudly.