By Ricky Dimon
The 2013 GHSA volleyball season comes to a conclusion this week with semifinal action on Wednesday and championships on Saturday. Five-set thrillers may be the norm with only the four best teams in each classification still alive.
Just two quarterfinal matches throughout the entire state went the distance, one in Class AAAAAA. South Forsyth treated its home crowd to a 16-25, 25-15, 25-23, 10-25, 15-9 triumph over Harrison to punch its semifinal ticket. The War Eagles are through to the last four for the first time in school history after reaching the quarterfinals for the first time last season.
South Forsyth’s reward is a rematch with top-seeded Walton. The teams faced each other on Sept. 14, when Walton scored a 25-16, 26-24 victory. The Raiders have only two in-state losses this year (both to Johns Creek) and they have won nine straight sets through three rounds of the state tournament. Walton has captured three consecutive state championships, two in Class AAAAA and last year in Class AAAAAA.
Johns Creek is even more familiar with its semifinal opponent, Area 5-rival Chattahoochee. After splitting a pair of regular-season encounters, Chattahoochee beat the Gladiators 16-14 in the fifth set for the area championship. The Cougars are on a 15-match winning streak since losing to South Forsyth 25-23 in a third and decisive set on Oct. 1. Johns Creek junior setter Madi Harty had six digs, two kills and a block in her team’s 3-0 first-round win over Hillgrove.
Familiar foes will also do battle in Class AAAAA as top-seeded McIntosh is set to host Region 4-rival Northgate. McIntosh won the head-to-head series 2-0 in the regular season, sweeping Northgate 25-22, 25-13 on Sept. 17 and 25-11, 25-12 on Sept. 28. The Chiefs have won 18 consecutive sets in their current eight-match winning streak. McIntosh ousted two-time reigning Class AAAA-champion Pope 3-0 in the second round, while Northgate eliminated defending Class AAAAA-champ Whitewater 3-1 in the quarterfinals.
Sequoyah is on 29-match surge heading into its semifinal clash against Dunwoody. The Chiefs, however, were tested in four-setters against North Paulding and Starr’s Mill in the first two rounds before sweeping Glynn Academy. Dunwoody did not lose a set in defeating Warner Robins, Hiram and Apalachee.
In Class AAAA, Sandy Creek is bidding for its third straight state title. The Fighting Patriots won it all in this classification last season after triumphing in Class AAA in 2011. They have a tough semifinal test on their hands against top seed and fellow Area 3 member Columbus. The Blue Devils are 3-1 in four matches against Sandy Creek this year, a record that includes a 3-0 sweep in the area championship on Oct. 10.
On the other side of the bracket, Marist is looking for its first title since 2006. The War Eagles are going up against a River Ridge squad in a showdown between two teams that did not drop a single set in the tournament en route to the semifinals. This is the first time in the history of River Ridge athletics that a team is in a state semifinal. The Knights are led by middle hitter Jess Mlaska, who is a two-time Area 6 player of the year after earning the honor once again this season.
A trio of Area 3 teams in Blessed Trinity, Buford and St. Pius X are part of the Class AAA final four. Heading into its second match of 2013 against Buford, No. 1 seed St. Pius X took the Sept. 10 regular-season meeting 25-18, 22-25, 25-19. Senior outside hitter Leah Hardeman set a school record earlier this season with 28 kills in a match.
Woodward Academy, an Area 2 representative, has faced both Buford and St. Pius this season, but has not yet clashed with Blessed Trinity. The War Eagles have won eight matches in a row and 20 straight sets. Second-seeded Blessed Trinity won all six of its sets in the first two rounds of state by a margin no closer than 25-15 after losing to St. Pius 3-2 in a thrilling area championship. The Titans have captured state titles two of the past three seasons (Class AA/A in 2010 and Class AAA in 2012).
The second of the two five-set quarterfinal showdowns, this one in Class AA, saw Jefferson hold off St. Vincent’s Academy 25-22, 25-23, 13-15, 13-15, 15-8. Grace Williams had 10 digs and eight kills in the winning effort after recording seven digs and 15 kills during second-round sweep of Calhoun. Next up for the Dragons is top-seeded Westminster, which swept both Coosa and Greater Atlanta Christian prior to a quarterfinal bye.
The four remaining teams in Class AA are from Area 4 (Westminster and Lovett) and Area 6 (Jefferson and Wesleyan). No. 2 seed Wesleyan, which swept Putnam County and Laney before getting a quarterfinal bye, has already defeated Lovett once this season. The Wolves prevailed 25-21, 25-22 on Aug. 24. Westminster is still bidding for its first state crown since 2008 (Class AA/A) after losing a 3-2 heartbreaker to Lovett in last year’s championship match.
“Even though we fell short of the state title, I was so proud of my team for making it as far as we did,” Westminster senior captain Ellie Hogan reflected on the 2012 campaign. “Since we had such a young team last year, we entered this season understanding the importance of what it means to be a part of a team and working as a cohesive unit on the court. We played a lot of talented teams in 2013 to get ready for the playoffs and it would be the perfect ending to an amazing season if we win the championship.”
Class A No. 1 seed Holy Innocents’ is facing Eagle’s Landing Christian for the second time this season after winning the matchup 25-14, 25-16 on Aug. 24. Both teams dropped only one set on their way to the last four. Eagle’s Landing Christian captured the Class AA/A championship in 2011 but lost to Savannah Christian 3-1 in last season’s second round. Savannah Christian is through to the semis for a second straight year following 3-0 sweeps of George Walton Academy, Paideia and Darlington. Next for the Raiders is Hebron Christian Academy, which defeated defending champion Landmark Christian in five sets during second-round action.