In each of the first two games against Lanier, Hannah Graham served Southeast Whitfield to early leads.
The first effort was enough to win. The second led to a blowout and showed how tough the Lady Raiders can be when they flex their volleyball muscles.
Southeast defended its home court Wednesday and advanced to the second round of the Class 4A state playoffs with a 25-16, 25-3, 25-13 sweep of the Lady Longhorns. The Lady Raiders (35-10) are in the second round of state for the fourth consecutive season.
Graham, the Area 7 champs’ senior setter and the league’s player of the year, gave the Lady Raiders a 6-0 lead in the first two games. It was crucial for Southeast, which is ranked No. 2 in the Ga.PrepCountry.com Class 4A coaches poll and was trying to avoid a letdown against a team making its first appearance at state.
“It’s a big morale booster,” Lady Raiders coach Jake Dickey said of the good starts, “especially (against) a team on the road. When you get them behind early on, all we have to do is play even.”
That’s basically what Southeast did in the first game. Lanier (10-19) started to climb back into the match, narrowing the gap to 8-4 and 18-15 before Southeast scored the final five points — three off aces from Wendy Perez — to end the game the same way it started.
But the early scoring runs were the difference for Southeast against Lanier.
“It’s really important because of momentum,” Graham said. “When you’re down, you’re pretty bummed."
The Lady Raiders’ stat sheet was marred by 15 unforced errors in the first game, but they were more dominant after the first break. Southeast scored the first six points before Lanier finally got one in the second game, but then the Lady Raiders and server Yasmeen Paloblanco took over on the way to a 16-1 lead.
“Yasmeen is one of our best servers,” Dickey said, “so we have (her and Graham) back to back and it’s tough.”
Lanier — the third-year team, which has no seniors, was the No. 4 seed for Area 8 — trailed 13-9 in the third set when the Lady Raiders scored nine of the next 12 points to pull away. Lady Longhorns coach Beth Harper said her team made life easier for the Lady Raiders by getting behind early and letting them control the style of play.
“(We) were definitely playing more to Southeast’s set tempo rather than our up-tempo pace,” Harper said. “Throughout the season, I’m happy with how we came together.”
This is the fifth season under Dickey in which the Lady Raiders have made the state playoffs, and they’ll host Tuesday. With either Jonesboro or Fayette County next — the two teams face off today, Dickey said — it is up to Southeast to find whatever happened when things started going well in the second set and make it the norm for all future matches.
The Lady Raiders only had two unforced errors in the second game and scored 15 points off either a kill, ace or block.
“In the first game we made a lot of errors, and in the second we just cleaned it up,” Graham said.
Perez finished with seven aces, six kills and a block and a half, while Graham tallied 27 assists, six aces and six digs.
Megan Collins had 14 kills and nine digs, Serena Ramsey added four kills, Paloblanco had three aces and Gabby Gonzalez had three kills and as many assists.