In October, senior Yanira Lopez became the first-ever Manassas Park High School volleyball player to commit to a Division I college when she decided to attend George Mason University.

Lopez’s opportunity thrilled Cougars head coach Kate Gilbride for a number of reasons. Lopez was rewarded for her hard work and dedication. She will play close enough to home for Gilbride to see her play. And perhaps most significantly, Lopez, the only four-year varsity player on Manassas Park’s roster and a returning second-team all-state pick, has inspired others newcomers to raise their own level of play.

“You’d look at the freshmen who came in here and their eyes were wide open,” Gilbride said. “They wanted to know ‘How do I get that serious?’”

Lopez is one example of how the Cougars continue to transform into a reputable program under Gilbride.

Last season, Manassas Park reached states for the first time in the program’s history. This season, the Cougars (13-8-2) are going back to states again with a senior-dominated team. Manassas Park, which finished second in the district and region to 2017 3A state-runner Warren County, will play at Tabb Saturday in a 6 p.m. state quarterfinal match. 

“The newness has worn off,” Gilbride said. “I’m excited, but it’s what I expected when practice began.”

There are other signs of growth. For the first time, Manassas Park Middle School has a volleyball program with enough interest to create two teams.

Manassas Park’s biggest challenge this season has been dealing with a small roster. Typically, teams like to carry 12 players, but the Cougars only have 10 after graduating four seniors from the 2017 squad that lost in the state quarterfinals.

“I got a little nervous when you have seven people in the game and three on the bench,” Gilbride said.

Lopez missed the first five matches with a back injury. But the Cougars stayed focused.

“Mentally, we’ve matured,” Gilbride said. “That’s helped us fight back. We’ve showed our mental toughness.”

Lopez is the headliner. She has 423 kills in 18 games. But Gilbride also cites Manassas Park’s defense as well as the play of senior setter Emily Swanson (434 assists and only 38 errors).

“[Yanira] is incredible, but we can’t have a team of just one,” Gilbride said.

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David Fawcett is the sports editor for InsideNoVa.com. Reach him at dfawcett@insidenova.com

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