MARIETTA -- South Forsyth's volleyball team left head coach Kelly Wren's house Saturday morning for Walton High School well-fed ahead of a familiar and ominous task. Wren made her team a breakfast of heuvos rancheros and monkey bread, the same as she did the three previous times the War Eagles faced the powerhouse Raiders in the state playoffs, the same as she does every postseason, according to senior Jessica Beil, and the team approved. "It was good," senior Hannah McGlockton said. "I liked it."
Leaving her home, Wren approved of what she felt from her team, too, despite knowing all too well what they were about to go up against. Walton entered the match 38-1 and ranked No. 2 in the country by MaxPreps, but the War Eagles had an even more intimate history with the Raiders. They'd lost those three previous state playoff meetings, including in the state championship in 2015. But on the bus to Marietta and the court during warm-ups, South showed no signs of intimidation.
"They just were calm," Wren said, "and ready to play."
Indeed, it was Walton (39-1) who called the first timeout as the teams went point for point in the first set. But gradually the Raiders pulled away for a 25-17 win. Walton won the next two sets more convincingly, 25-15 and 25-13, and so South's season came to the same end as those in 2013 and 2015 and 2016. The Raiders' season continued to the Class 7A state semifinals where they'll play Mill Creek, a 3-1 winner over Lambert.
Wren prepared the War Eagles by breaking down Walton rotation by rotation on film, going through how the Raiders' array of formidable hitters, led by Ohio State commit Gabby Gonzales, operated within their frenetic offense. "At times, it's hard to read," Wren said, and that put extra pressure on South's block. Gonzales had a match-high 13 kills, while Jordan Rush had nine and Riley Spurlin added seven.
“I think we played exceptional defense against some outstanding hitters," Wren said.
McGlockton, Molly Bergin and Sydney Forrest each had six kills for South (17-25). The War Eagles' effort never wavered, even as the match progressed from competitive early on to less so. McGlockton and Beil dove and lunged for digs, even in the midst of Walton's streak of eight straight points to end the final set and the match.
“We had nothing to lose,” Beil said, “and I feel like most of us brought out all we had on to the court.”
This was not the sort of team the War Eagles had put up against Walton before, if only because of all it been through. South already had five starters to replace from last season's team that reached the state semifinals, and then promising freshman hitter Avery Svehla was lost to injury just before the season began. South had to adjust, and chemistry came slow. The program's usual dominance wavered with losses to Lambert, North Forsyth and West Forsyth for the first time in years.
Still, the War Eagles pushed forward, capturing the No. 3 seed in the Area 5-7A tournament and sweeping Norcross and Grayson in the first and second rounds, respectively. South played in the state quarterfinals for the sixth straight season.
“At the start of the season, none of thought we’d be here now," senior Avery Kline said. "It’s just amazing, and I’ve never been more proud of a team. We have come so far, and we have just developed and grown so much as a team.”