Two prep volleyball teams are staying here and two squads are heading out there.
Southeast Whitfield and Dalton, which finished first and second in Area 7-4A, will host today in the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs. Meanwhile, North Murray and Northwest Whitfield are also in the playoffs — in the Class 3A and 4A brackets, respectively — but both teams must win on the road to keep their seasons alive.
Southeast’s Lady Raiders host Lanier at 5:30 p.m., while Dalton’s Lady Catamounts welcome Chestatee for a 6 p.m. start. North Murray’s Lady Mountaineers will play at Stockbridge’s Jackson, while the Lady Bruins travel to Johnson-Gainesville, with both of those matches at 5:30 p.m. All of the state matches are best-of-five format.
Lanier at Southeast Whitfield
The Lady Raiders (34-10) are becoming an established volleyball program on a statewide level, and they plan to show a new school what that looks like.
Lanier’s Lady Longhorns, the No. 4 seed from Area 8, will travel from Sugar Hill for their first appearance in the state playoffs, taking on Southeast as the first round whittles the 32-team field to 16. Lanier opened in 2010.
“They don’t have any seniors,” Southeast coach Jake Dickey said. “They have a couple of juniors and mostly sophomores and freshmen.”
Southeast, fresh of a second consecutive area championship, is ranked second in the Ga.Prep.Country.com Class 4A coaches poll. No one from Area 8 is in the top 10, while Area 7 has both the Lady Raiders and eighth-ranked Heritage-Catoosa.
“I think our area is fairly strong, and I think all four teams will have a chance,” Dickey said.
Lanier (6-16) went 1-6 against area competition during the regular season, but made a run in the area tournament to prolong its season.
“For them to qualify, it has to be exciting for them,” Dickey said.
Southeast has plenty of experience in the state playoffs since Dickey took over as head coach in 2006. The Lady Raiders are making their fifth state appearance with him, and they have advanced to the second round the past three seasons.
Still, Dickey believes his seniors — Hannah Graham, Megan Collins and McKayla Burse — have a mindset that prevents overconfidence.
“This is a weird team,” he said. “You’d think that might be a problem, but I think our seniors know every game has the potential to be their last. So I don’t think that is a problem. If I had a younger team then maybe they’d think, ‘Oh, we won the area so we’re really good.’”
Dickey knows nothing about Lanier’s style of play or the quality of player at each position. That has resulted in Southeast paying attention to Southeast in preparation.
“We work our first contacts — serving and serves received,” Dickey said. “If you can do that better, then you will win. We’ve worked that a lot and (Tuesday) was one of our better practices.”
Chestatee at Dalton
Lady Cats (22-15) coach Joey Wills has heard of Chestatee’s defensive resilience, and he knows it could test Dalton’s ability to play mistake-free volleyball and keep the pedal pushed.
Against the Lady War Eagles (16-24), who claimed the No. 3 seed from Area 8, Dalton must deal with a team known for keeping plays alive and waiting on opponents to misstep.
“I’ve talked to a couple people who said they were a real scrappy team,” Wills said. “They have one girl who is big and plays in the middle and is a strong hitter.
“The main thing is their scrappiness, and you can pound it and pound it and they keep hitting it back over.”
That means the Lady Cats, the only team to win a game against Southeast in the Area 7 tournament, must do a few things really well: be mistake-free, make the most of serves and make good decisions.
“We have a great team, and we just have to play smart,” Wills said. “It’ll take the first game for us to figure out where we are and who we’re playing against.”
The best-of-five format for state might not be as much of an adjustment for the Lady Cats as for some teams. They played in that format during the 7-4A championship match against Southeast on Saturday, losing in four games. And aside from being acquainted with the longer format, Wills believes his team is in good shape after playing almost all day Saturday in the tournament.
“I think what helped us was we played seven hours straight of volleyball,” he said. “Three out of five shouldn’t bother us.”
Northwest Whitfield at Johnson-Gainesville
Lady Bruins coach Jennifer Quinn thinks her team has at least one advantage — knowing how to win when the opponent relies on a strong middle hitter.
Northwest (17-21) overcame its No. 5 seed to finish fourth in the area, but now the Lady Bruins must take on the Area 8 champs after a two-hour bus ride from Tunnel Hill to Gainesville.
Still, Quinn believes the matchup could help her side. Scouting reveals a strong middle hitter for Johnson (25-13), which defeated Walnut Grove for the area title, and an offense that works through the player.
“I guess I’m going to focus my defense to stop the middle,” she said.
That’s OK for the Lady Bruins, who faced one of the area’s best hitters when she was playing in the exact same spot. Northwest lost to Dalton in the elimination round of the area tournament but won the first game against the Lady Catamounts 25-10. In that game, Dalton’s star, Susan Meinders, was attacking from the middle.
“They did put Susan (Meinders) in the middle and we beat them,” Quinn said. “Then they moved her back outside and we lost.
“Most of the teams in our area have strong outside hitters.”
The Lady Bruins upset Gilmer in the tournament’s first round, a major victory that helped keep their season going. And one of the major factors in the team’s late-season success is when the opponent has the ball.
“We went on this winning streak and it’s mostly been based on our defense,” Quinn said. “If they’re determined to do it, then they’ll do it.”
North Murray at Jackson
The local team taking the longest trip is also the one farthest from the interstate.
The Lady Mountaineers will be on a bus ride for more than two and a half hours to Butts County thanks to two consecutive losses to end the Area 4-3A tournament.
North Murray coach Connie Hudgins and her team wish they were staying in Chatsworth for the first round of the 24-team Class 3A field, but a No. 3 seed means a trip south.
“I think that our fans wanted that,” Hudgins said. “We had a lot of football players who wanted to come. We wanted to redeem ourselves from earlier in the season, and we have the talent to beat anybody there.”
But Hudgins has a plan in place to keep her players from being too uptight.
“We’re going down early so we’ll have time to move around,” she said. “There’s a state park two exits down from the school and I hope we can go there for about 30 to 40 minutes to get some fresh air before we go to the school, so we can have some time not focusing on the task at hand before we have to.”
Senior setter Iliana Muguia thinks the time on the bus will help keep the team calm.
“I think since we’re going to have an hour to ourselves that we’ll be pretty good,” she said. “We’ll be awake and prepared.”
The Lady Mountaineers (16-13) don’t have a lot of information about Area 3 No. 2 seed Jackson (9-21).
“We’re just working on our offense and hitting our spots,” Hudgins said, “and focusing on us getting the points instead of relying on what the other team will give us.”