Volleyball playoff schedule
• Pinecrest Academy (Area 6-A, No. 3 seed) at St. Anne Pacelli (Area 1-A, No. 2 seed), 5 p.m. Thursday in Columbus.
• North Forsyth (Area 5-7A, No. 3 seed) at Hillgrove (Area 3-7A, No. 2 seed), 5 p.m. Wednesday in Powder Springs.
• Lambert (Area 5-7A, No. 2 seed) vs. Kennesaw Mountain (Area 3-7A, No. 3 seed), 5 p.m. Wednesday in Suwanee.
• South Forsyth (Area 5-7A, No. 1 seed) vs. Marietta (Area 3-7A, No. 4 seed), 5 p.m. Wednesday in Cumming.
South Forsyth didn't have the type of regular season it had last year, but none of that matters now for head coach Kelly Wren.
If anything, South's dramatic victories over Lambert in the semifinal and championship matches of the Area 5-7A tournament proved that the Lady War Eagles (34-18), who lost 11 more matches than they did compared to a season ago heading into the postseason, are ready to take on the state title run they've been hungry for since that late October Saturday at Marietta High School.
Walton, with five state titles in six years, cruised through the first two sets in last year's title tilt, 25-13 and 25-18, but the Lady War Eagles bounced back and only fell by four in the final set. They walked off the court with confidence, and Wren made it clear that the next step—the final step—is not only advancing to the state championship match, but winning it all.
Once this fall season began, the narrative appeared to be rotating to a neighbor. The Lambert Lady Longhorns were good, but not great, last season. This year they became South's greatest adversary, and sometimes were considered the class of the region, while Wren spent time cycling through updates on injury recoveries and the unexpected news of new ones.
Just a week ago, South's star outside hitter Amanda Nugent did her best to conceal a nagging shoulder injury. After a 30-kill performance on Day 2 of the region tournament, she dashed for an ice wrap. Perhaps the biggest injury has been Shea McNamara, who has trickled back into action after being sidelined for much of the season. The tall, enforcing, powerful middle hitter is a key piece if South wants to return to its form from a year ago, and Wren thinks everything is finally coming together at the right time.
“We are finally healthy enough to play,” Wren said. “Shea feels great and is practicing and playing in full at this point.”
That's great timing.
“There's some girls on this team who just haven't had enough reps with (Shea) yet too, so we've had some progress to make,” Wren said after South won in five sets against Lambert to take the region championship last week.
Now without major scratches in the lineup, South is prepared to enter the state tournament with a group of seniors with eyes on a destiny: libero Erin Yeatman, Nugent, McNamara, right side hitter Lily Kincaid, defensive specialists Savian Jordan and Carley McCravey, middle hitter Avery Kline and others were there against Walton last season.
“We are peaking at the right time, especially with this group that has significant experience in the playoff process,” Wren said. “I think that experience will help us in tough matches. Playoff matches are so different from regular season play, everything is on the line and you only get one chance to perform. We will be working hard on our focus, discipline, execution and emotional control during each match.”
On the other side of the bracket, if Lambert (28-12) wants to advance to the championships they will have to face off with Walton, barring an upset of the state's best program.
The Lady Longhorns proved with their neck-on-neck matches against South in tournament play that they can run with the best, especially with the cohesive unit of Madeline Bertz, Amanda Sinning, Kaillin Taggart and Kendall Spangler providing the needed size to compete with elite programs down the stretch. As well, Lambert head coach Missey Hall's daughter, Ally, has looked like an upperclass outside hitter for the entire season, despite being in her first year of high school.
There's also no counting out North Forsyth, which won the most matches in program history with 34 wins before earning a No. 3 seed in state (Milton took the No. 4 slot). The Lady Raiders have a strong core with Maddie Bryant on the outside, Maddie Palmer blocking the middle and senior Bri Gilbert offering shots from the outside.
In Class A, Pinecrest Academy enters after a tough 2-1 loss to Walker in the Area 6-A tournament, but went 3-2 overall in the bracket and enters as a No. 3 seed. They will travel to Columbus to begin first round play.