Winning a first area championship is a special moment.
When another comes the next year, it erases all doubt who the best really is.
Southeast Whitfield’s volleyball team held an area trophy high for a second straight year Saturday after beating Dalton 25-10, 24-26, 25-17, 25-7 and only losing one game throughout the entire two-day Area 7-4A tournament, which started Thursday and ended on the Lady Raiders’ court.
“When I got here, the program was being built up,” said coach Jake Dickey, in his seventh season at Southeast. “I’ve felt like we’ve been getting better and better and better and were always right there. But to get over that hump, it makes a big difference.”
Southeast (34-10 overall and ranked No. 2 in Ga.Prep Country.com Class 4A coach’s poll) jumped on Dalton in the first game of the best-of-five match, taking an early 13-1 lead behind thanks to Wendy Perez’s two kills and one block. The lead held up, but the next game proved more dramatic.
With Southeast leading 10-6, Dalton’s Alejandra Fraire served 10 straight points, including an ace, to put Dalton ahead. The Lady Raiders reclaimed the lead, 20-18, but Dalton climbed back ahead 23-21 thanks to two kills from Molly Martin. With the score tied at 24, Kara Pendley set up Susan Meinders twice in a row for the final two game-clinching points and a 1-1 tie.
“We had one bad rotation where the girl got about eight or nine points,” Dickey said. “I told them, ‘That was the difference in the game, because we came back and lost by two. If you hold her to just six points, then we win by three.’”
Being the first game top-seeded Southeast lost all tournament, it only pushed the squad to make sure it handled business the rest of the way. An early 9-2 lead was stretched to a 16-5 advantage. Despite trailing 24-14, Dalton (22-15) scored three straight before setter Hannah Graham perfectly placed the ball right in the middle of Dalton’s defense. It was one of nine times she scored on a drop.
“I do it some in every game, but I think I did it more in that game because they weren’t catching on to it,” Graham said.
Southeast used the momentum to collect 18 of the first 21 points in the fourth game and never was threatened. Megan Collins had 30 digs and 17 kills in the match against No. 2-seed Dalton. Perez added 10 kills while Graham collected 30 assists. Meinders had 19 kills against the Lady Raiders, while Pendley collected 23 assists.
Beating Northwest Whitfield 25-16, 25-16 and Heritage-Catoosa 25-10, 25-22 gave the Lady Raiders the chance to repeat as champs, and do so against the rivals from the city district.
Southeast won the Area 7-3A title in 2011, the first title with Dickey at the helm.
For the Lady Cats, the day did not begin in the best way. A 25-19, 25-20 loss to third-seeded Heritage put Dalton in the elimination bracket. A 25-20, 25-15 win over Gilmer clinched a Class 4A state playoff spot, but Northwest took the first game 25-11 in the loser-gets-fourth-place match.
Before the second game, Dalton coach Joey Wills gave his best effort to avoid a not-so-great outcome.
“I just asked them if that’s how they wanted to spend their day,” he said. “I said, ‘You can either step it up, or we can be done and go home.’ They stepped it up. They’re not ready to quit, and they’re still not ready to quit.”
Dalton won the next two games 25-20, 25-15 to eliminate the Lady Bruins and earn a rematch against the Lady Generals (28-12).
And Dalton looked like a completely different team, winning 25-20, 25-10. Meinders had nine kills and Martin added eight, while Pendley collected 17 assists in the match.
“We were really led in the Heritage match by (Alejandra) Fraire,” Wills said. “She provided the mental edge we needed.”
Meinders, Fraire and Ashleigh Peters combined for 13 kills against Gilmer. Meinders and Martin joined for 13 kills against the Lady Bruins. Macey Noles had 26 digs throughout the day, and Wills said Hannah Cox provided “excellent net play” to help Dalton earn a home match in the first round of the state playoffs, which begin Wednesday.
“We have a good chance in that second position, just as Southeast does, of going deeper in the state tournament than either one of us have gone in a while,” Wills said.
Despite the Lady Bruins’ loss to the Lady Raiders to start the day and Lady Cats to end it, they defeated Pickens 25-22, 25-8 to clinch a playoff spot. The Lady Bruins entered the tournament seeded fifth but defeated No. 4-seed Gilmer Thursday to earn a smooth ride to the final four teams. Shelby Douglas had 29 digs on Saturday, while Mary Kate Allen and Sarah Thomas combined for 25 kills and 12 blocks at the net. Liz Trew had 35 assists.
“We beat Gilmer and that was a big win for us,” said Northwest (17-21) coach Jennifer Quinn, whose squad was projected to finish last in the eight-team area when the season began.
“We were seeded eighth, and now we’re fourth. They’ve really pulled it together. We’ve been climbing the whole time.”
The only lingering negative was letting the match versus Dalton slip away. Northwest led 16-14 in the second game before Dalton rallied for an 11-4 run to end the game.
“We made some mistakes with some of our younger players, and that’s going to happen at times this season,” Quinn said. “(Also), I think we get caught watching sometimes. ... We still have some of those young errors.”
With all three of the area’s Whitfield County schools securing at least one more match this season, the day belonged to the school on the southern end. Southeast’s three seniors — Collins, Graham and McKayla Burse — combined for 121 dig throughout their three matches. Collins added 30 kills, Perez collected 29 and Serena Ramsey tallied 13. Graham had 68 assists.
And now Southeast turns its attention to the 32-team playoffs. Last season the Lady Raiders lost in the second round. This year, the expectations are to go two rounds beyond.
“Our goal right now is at least the (semifinals),” said Dickey. “If our No. 2 ranking in state holds up, then we’ll host all the way to then.”
Lady Raiders claim second straight area title
Winning a first area championship is a special moment.
Still a hard test
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