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Volleyball: Lambert downs Walton, punches ticket to 1st-ever state finals
Lambert Walton 10-29-22
Lambert's Jordan White (12) and Kalyssa Taggart attempt to block a tip by Walton during a Class 7A state semifinal Saturday in Marietta. (Photo by Cecil Copeland)

In each of the past four years, Lambert volleyball ended its season with a loss in the Class 7A state playoffs to the eventual state champion.

Three of those years (2018, 2019 and 2021) it happened with a quarterfinal exit against Walton. In 2020, the Longhorns reached the semifinals for just the second time (also 2016) but dropped a heartbreaker to Alpharetta in pursuit of their first-ever championship appearance.

Now, in one fell swoop, Lambert banished both of those demons, as the Longhorns put together a stellar showing to stun juggernaut Walton 3-1 (20-25, 25-10, 25-20, 25-19) in a Final Four matchup Saturday in Marietta.

Next up is a meeting with top-ranked Buford for the championship at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 5 in LakePoint Sporting Community.

“It’s hard to even describe,” Lambert head coach Missey Hall said of guiding the program to the state finals. “We’ve been in this spot so many times, whether it be the Elite Eight or the Final Four. It just feels so gratifying that this group of seniors, who have not lost a region match, worked so hard for four years and that they’re able to experience this. I’m so happy for the entire group.”

The Longhorns' senior class witnessed three of those previous four gut-wrenching exits, and the players seemed determined to avoid history repeating itself.

“It’s so rewarding, because this is a team we’ve played countless times the past few years and we’ve just never been able to pull through,” said middle blocker Jordan White, one of those seniors. “We were able to execute everything very well — passing, serving, defense, blocking and hits. I think when we all play as a team instead of individually, it really shines on the court. I think having so many fans here and our energy being so high definitely contributed.”

Third-ranked Lambert (36-7) started off extremely shaky — especially compared to its normal level — with No. 4 Walton reeling off six straight points after Claire Jenkins had opened the match with an ace. The Longhorns, though, battled back to even the first set at 8-all.

But the Raiders continuously found a hole in the middle of the defense, while also benefitting from some unforced errors by the visitors. Following a timeout, Walton closed the opening set on an 8-4 run.

“We didn’t execute,” Hall said of the first set. “We had some missed serves and missed some matchups that we had worked on all week. I knew once they got those jitters out, they would be fine, because the game plan was set. Once we started running our offense and not playing their game, we did much better.”

Despite the rocky start, White felt that the team began to grow more comfortable with the environment the longer the match went on.

“In the first set, I think we were really on edge,” the Tulane commit said. “… When we started channeling that energy and putting that into our play, I think that definitely made a difference.”

It showed in the second, when the Longhorns played as close to a perfect set as possible.

Three consecutive blocks involving White fueled a 5-0 opening spurt. Another 5-0 rally put Lambert up 16-7 before a string of six unanswered points buried Walton in a 22-8 hole.

“They played really, really good ball offensively and defensively,” Hall said of the set that turned the momentum. “They served seams really well. We got them out of system, and that’s what we’ve been working on all week. It was nice to see that come to fruition in that second set.”

White paced the Longhorns with 13 kills and seven blocks, and the 6-foot-3 standout seemed to really change the way the Raiders attacked after establishing her presence at the net.

“I think I did a better job of reading what they were going to do,” White said of improved success with blocking after the first set. “… We knew what shots they liked to hit, and we worked on it numerous times in practice. I think we just executed it on the court very beautifully.”

Even after the lengthier break between the second and third sets, Lambert maintained its dominance early in the third, as an ace and a couple of kills by Dani Cortes highlighted a 6-1 start.

White, who added five digs, served up one of her two aces for an 8-2 lead. She later posted three kills in a four-point span to put the Longhorns up 18-7.

At that point, Lambert appeared to go into cruise control, while Walton put its foot on the gas. The Raiders, though, had too much ground to make up.

Once Walton got back to within 21-17, Lambert's M.K. Patten produced back-to-back emphatic kills to steady the ship. White, then, came through and slammed the ball to the court to secure the third set win.

“We closed it out by running the offense we needed to,” Hall said. “We started going to some hot hands. We spread their blockers a little bit better. We gave them some opportunities with some missed serves, but they came back and sided out after that.”

For being such a tough matchup between two of the top four teams in the classification, none of the sets really went down to the wire. The fourth set proved to be the most competitive from start to finish.

Walton led by one at a couple of early junctures, but Lambert stayed in front most of the way, although never by more than six points.

Ella Beyer really took over in the fourth, producing half of her 10 kills during the clinching set. Fittingly, White secured the game-winning kill to cap her dominant performance.

Patten joined White and Beyer in double-figures with 11 kills and added two blocks. Cortes finished with seven kills, while Kalyssa Taggart added six.

Taggart edged out Jenkins 22-21 in assists and 4-3 in blocks. Both players added two aces. Jenkins received recognition from the Lambert bench and Longhorns fans after dishing out her 2,000th career assist early in the first set.

Francesca Popescu recorded a team-high 18 digs. Cortes totaled 10 digs to go with two each of aces and blocks. Taggart chipped in with six digs.

It truly did take a complete team effort to deny Walton a shot at its 11th state championship since 2010.

“There’s no doubt that Suzanne [Fitzgerald] has built a dynasty,” Hall said of the architect for the Raiders' remarkable run of success. “It’s an incredible program. My daughter played for her. I know what an incredible coach she is.”

But a rugged non-region schedule that featured matches against Buford; 7A semifinalist North Gwinnett; 6A finalists Sequoyah and Pope; 6A semifinalists North Forsyth and Johns Creek; and several other top-notch programs paid off when it mattered most.

“The schedule we played really did prepare us for this,” Hall said. “We don’t let teams get on serving runs too often. We were able to side out really well. That’s a testament to what they’ve been up against this whole season.

“I was proud of them for that.”

It also helped Lambert's cause that over the final three sets an unaware observed could have mistakenly thought the match took place in the Longhorns' gym. During stoppages in play, chants of "Let's go Lambert!" drowned out similar cheers from Walton's vociferous crowd.

Hall will be hoping for a similar turnout next week, when the program takes aim at an inaugural state title.

“The community came out in such a way, and I could not be more thankful to have them fill the stands in this hostile environment,” she said. “It was great to see so many people. Volleyball is a fun game to watch. I don’t think people really know that until they get there and watch it.

"To hear them in the stands and see them supporting the girls, I know it meant the world to them.”