2010-11-10 / Sports

Warriors battle the odds to win volleyball championship

By Fred Jeter

In five short years, Matoaca volleyball coach Adam Griffin (center) has gone from knowing little about the game to leading his team to a championship win. Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer In five short years, Matoaca volleyball coach Adam Griffin (center) has gone from knowing little about the game to leading his team to a championship win. Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer Okay, here’s the plot: A school with zilch for a volleyball pedigree sends out an SOS for a coach, any coach. In steps a man with no volleyball background whatsoever – but he gets the job by default. Five years later, in a rags-to-riches saga, that school is celebrating a district championship.

Only in Hollywood, you say. No, in this case it was at Matoaca High School.

The not-long-ago ragamuffin Warriors won their first Central District regular-season recently by upending long-dominant Thomas Dale on two occasions.

The Knights gained revenge, however, by winning the District tournament final on Matoaca’s home floor.

The regular-season losses were Dale’s first ever in District play.

The Warriors carried an overall 19-3 record into the Central Region tournament this week (semifinals and finals at Hanover High).

When you roll the credits, the stars include 6-foot-7 Player of Year Matt Harper, All- Central Ethan Bickford and Ryan Clatman… and, surprise, Adam Griffin, Coach of the Year.

Griffin, hired in 2006, was an unlikely candidate to turn the Warriors from frogs to royalty.

“We needed a coach; we were just looking for a body,” recalled Larry Stewart, Matoaca’s activities director.

“Up to then, our varsity wasn’t much more than a phys-ed class.”

Laughing at the memory, Stewart adds: “It wasn’t very popular; in those early years, we had kids that couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Griffin, from Warwick High in Newport News and Virginia Tech, was all about baseball when he applied to Matoaca as a physical-education teacher and baseball coach.

“We told Adam we didn’t have anything available in baseball, but we really needed a volleyball coach,” said Principal Stephen Cunningham.

Until Griffin stepped in for some on-the-job training, volleyball was way down the list of activities at the southern Chesterfield school.

“We were known for basketball, football, baseball – certainly not volleyball,” said Stewart. “At one point, I coached it myself as a stand-in.”

Up to then, a “kill shot” in the Matoaca hallways was something you associated this time of year with deer season. Griffin changed that way of thinking.

“We had one tremendous player when I arrived, Wes Eppard,” recalled Griffin. “At first I learned from him.

“But coaching is coaching and dealing with kids is dealing with kids. I started reading up on it, watching videos, listening to anyone who’d give me an ear.”

Also, Griffin encouraged his team members to play off-season volleyball at the various clubs.

Limited success came quickly. The Warriors advanced to Regionals in ’06, ’08 and ’09, each time as runner-up to juggernaut Dale.

This fall came the climactic break-through. Heroically, getting past Dale was like blasting through the Berlin Wall.

“The whole mindset has changed,” said Griffin. “At first I had to recruit from the gym classes. Now the kids are coming to me; I don’t have to ask anyone.”

At the same time Griffin has coached Matoaca volleyball, he has served as the varsity baseball coach at Varina. This spring, he will become baseball coach at Midlothian.

When Matoaca moved to its new location in 2002, the demographics changed dramatically. Now the Warriors excel in such “suburban” activities as golf, cross-country and, now, volleyball, in addition to the traditional ball sports.

Harper, the team leader in kill shots and blocks, chose volleyball over basketball – a major turning point for Griffin’s program.

“Matt is long and athletic, with a lot of coordination,” said Griffin.

Setter Bickford accounted for more than 500 assists. Clatman, also All-District in soccer, was a prime over-the-net target, along with Harper.

Other starters include second-team, All-Central Del Ramsey (also place kicker on the football team), Sean Evaro, Brandon Branch and Wade Glotfelty.

As victories grew, so did student support, with hundreds turning out with red body/face paint and noisemakers.

“You would have never guessed it,” recalled Stewart. “I remember Adam sitting in my office…I had to talk him into all this.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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