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South volleyball in uncharted territory
Lady War Eagles in first Final Four in program history
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Hannah Shanley and South Forsyth volleyball are in unchartered territory playing in their first Final Four in program history. - photo by Brian Paglia

On Monday morning, Kelly Wren walked down a hallway in South Forsyth High School when she heard a student yell, ‘Final Four!’ It was just a kid, any kid; she couldn’t see who it was.

There were plenty of gestures over the weekend, an out-powering of funny tweets, excited tweets, rowdy tweets congratulating South on its chance to play in the Class AAAAAA Final Four today at defending champion Walton at 7 p.m. Now, they came from too many places to keep track.

But the love from South spread to the whole team. Senior middle hitter Jordan Hawk was accosted in hallways by strangers giving congratulations. South football coach Jeff Arnette stopped senior outside hitter Hannah Shanley to tell her Saturday’s five-set victory over Harrison in the Elite Eight was one of the most amazing games he’d ever watched.

Maybe this is how it works for any top volleyball program. South has just never had the chance to find out. Success took a long, gradual climb from 2004 when the Lady War Eagles went 14-14 overall and 0-9 in area play.

Now, South is 48-12, in the Final Four for the first time in school history, one win away from the state championship and growing its following with every milestone.

"It’s been a little surprising how excited [South] kids have been about volleyball," Wren said, "which is kind of a cool thing for us."

What South is just experiencing now has been the norm for its opponent for years. Walton (42-6) has won eight state titles, including the last three in Georgia’s highest classification, becoming in many ways the standard for volleyball programs in the state.

When the Lady War Eagles hosted the Lady Raiders in their All-City Play Day on Sept. 14, it was the ultimate measuring stick. And the result – a 25-16, 26-24 loss to Walton – was the ultimate learning experience.

"I think in the regular season we found out what worked really well consistently," Hawk said, "but I think now we learned that we have to change it up a little bit."

Both Wren and players said they feel no pressure going into tonight’s match. The nerves left after defeating Harrison this past Saturday. It was the same team in the same round that last season’s state tournament ended for South. There was pressure to make sure it didn’t happen again. It didn’t.

"I think that [Harrison] game was such a big road block for us," Wren said. "Now, I think we’re just going to play. I think it’s much less pressure. We’re the underdogs. There’s much less pressure in that."

But there is urgency left for South, especially for its core of seven seniors who helped transform the Lady War Eagles program into one of the top contenders in the state. Every match is potentially the group’s last together. Hawk and Shanley said that reality hit them poignantly before the decisive fifth set against Harrison.

"We were going back and forth," Shanley said, "saying, ‘This is not going to be our last game of volleyball.’"

"We definitely have to make the most of this," Hawk said.

South knows the challenge before it. Walton has an experienced core of its own, led by University of Dayton commit Jessica Sloan, a 6-foot-1 senior outside hitter along with seniors Leah Jackson, Brooke Landon and Lindsay Seagraves. The Lady Raiders like to attack from the outside. After back-to-back-to-back state championships, Walton has unmatched experience.

South knows it has each other. After a disappointing area tournament, the Lady War Eagles regrouped, tweaking lineups here and there as the situation required. But, mostly, they just built on the chemistry they’ve developed over the past few seasons.

"I think we’re more prepared as a team," Shanley said. "We know each other so well, and we know the strengths and weaknesses of each person on the team. I think knowing more about Walton will help us out."