Abbey Michelone had not played volleyball in two weeks, not since South Forsyth played a friendly soccer game after its area tournament loss and the senior middle hitter and blocker broke her right hand. Through two swift rounds of the Class AAAAAA tournament, Michelone was a spectator. But without her Saturday, the Lady War Eagles may not have made history.
Fifth-seeded South defeated fourth-seeded Harrison 3-2 (16-25, 25-15, 25-23, 10-25, 15-9) at home to reach the state semifinals for the first time in school history, eclipsing last season’s historical quarterfinals run and setting the stage for a match against top-seeded Walton on Wednesday for a shot at the state championship.
“It’s huge,” South coach Kelly Wren said. “I’m proud. I’m proud for [the seniors]. They left their mark on the school. I told them five years ago, commit to this and you will be in this position. And they are, and it’s so amazing.”
The Lady War Eagles entered the Elite Eight with the prospects of facing a team in each round they lost to during the regular season or last year’s state tournament. First up, Harrison.
The Lady Hoyas ended South’s season a year ago at this same stage of the state tournament. It was a mismatch in experience then – South making its first Elite Eight appearance ever, Harrison making its third straight. The Lady Hoyas advanced with a convincing 3-0 win. The Lady War Eagles went home buoyed by the accomplishments of their best season in school history.
The roles were reversed on Saturday. Harrison entered the match with a young team that South (48-12) had defeated twice during the regular season. The Lady War Eagles entered with its core of seven seniors, including Michelone.
Michelone made her impact after South dropped the first game 25-16. Freshman hitter Amanda Nugent started the match because of her offense, but Harrison started to exploit her inexperience on defense.
Enter Michelone. Despite sitting out South’s first and second round victories against Brunswick and East Coweta, respectively, despite her right hand heavily wrapped and numb, she said, Michelone gave the Lady War Eagles the defensive presence they needed.
Teaming with junior Taylor Svehla and senior Kelli McCravy, Michelone was on several blocks and had seven of her own. South promptly won the next two games to take a 2-1 lead.
“I hadn’t been on the court in two weeks,” Michelone said, “so I was just excited to get out there and excited to play.”
“She’s a phenomenal blocker,” Wren said. “We were in the fifth game because of Abby, because of her blocking and because of what she brought to the court experience-wise.”
Whether it was Harrison’s adjustments or the pounding Michelone’s broken hand took, her effectiveness waned during Harrison’s 25-10 victory in Game 4.
Enter Nugent. Wren reinserted the freshman in Game 5, and South seized control of the match. A resounding block by Svehla and two errors by Harrison forced the Lady Hoyas to call a timeout down 3-0. Nugent placed a perfect kill for the first point coming out of the timeout and Harrison called its second timeout moments later trailing 8-2. Nugent added another kill after the timeout as South took a 12-4 lead.
“Abby got us there, and Amanda closed it out,” Wren said. “It was a really cool combination of the two of them.”
The Lady Hoyas made a short run to cut it to 12-8 and prompted Wren to call a timeout, but the Lady War Eagles never wavered.
“I just told them to breathe,” Wren said.
McCravy dumped the ball in between the flummoxed Lady Hoyas. Rachel Croce hit a tip that rolled along the white rubber at the top of the net and fell in for point. Rachel Croce finished it with a kill, and South’s gym erupted in celebration.
“It feels amazing,” Michelone said. “Last year we were done in the Elite Eight, and South has never made it to the Final Four. It’s like the best thing in the world.”