Leading up to a second-round playoff volleyball match against Walker, the current senior class at Lakeview Academy had already surpassed the achievements of any other group before it in the program’s history.
On Tuesday night, a two-year stretch of sustained success for Clyde Wylie’s squad came to an end as the top-seeded Lady Lions fell to three seed Walker in the Class A/AA Private tournament in Gainesville.
In a battle of two top-10 squads in the Single-A, the seventh-ranked Lady Lions (42-12) traded swings with the No. 5 Wolverines in a five-set thrill ride inside Lakeview Academy’s Walters Athletic Center before ultimately falling — 14-25, 25-21, 25-23, 18-25, 15-17 — in the best-of-five format.
A rambunctious, youthful opponent successfully knocked Lakeview Academy back on its heels in the opening set and kept the pressure on the hosts. The Lady Lions rallied to claim a two sets to one lead but failed to shut the door against the Wolverines.
Walker, which was without the talents of returning GVCA Class A Player of the Year Kaitlyn Rodriguez and had called up one junior varsity player to fill the slot, saw a number of its own deliver in critical moments to deadlock the match at two sets apiece and knock off the Lady Lions in the decider.
Rodriguez, according to Walker assistant coach Helen Lin, was hospitalized the day before with an undisclosed sickness and could not make the trip. The Wolverines fed off their visiting section in the bleachers, as fans continued to chant in unison “It’s-for-Kait-lyn,” while the Wolverines rallied from behind twice in the fifth and staved off three match points before freshman hitter Lauren Haynes delivered the knockout punch.
Haynes, stepping in for the ill Rodriguez, delivered back-to-back kills at 15-all, the latter right down the middle of the court to prompt an eruption of cheers from the Walker faithful and temper the rowdy section of Lakeview Academy.
Walker (31-8) will face No. 1 Eagles Landing Christian — which defeated No. 2 Mt. Vernon in the second round — on Saturday a time to be determined.
“The girls, they really played together. We played for (Kaitlyn).” Lin said of her ripe roster of underclassmen, who are back in the third round after falling short in the state semifinals last season. “They played their hearts out despite this difficult situation. (Lakeview) has five seniors, we have none. We were really up and down emotionally, and you saw that. ...They really wanted it for Kaitlyn.”
Emotions were flaring, especially from Walker's side of the court after Lakeview squeaked past the Wolverines in the second set, and used a pair of scoring runs to build an 18-11 lead in the contested third. Walker slowly chipped away at the Lady Lions' lead, and came within one point following a double block at the net at 21-20. A Walker player was issued a yellow card by the head referee upon disputing a called carry that awarded Lakeview a point.
She was shown the red on the final point of the third set after a Sadie Thrailkill swinging attack trickled the top of the net and went out of bounds, but it was determined that two blocking defenders in the vicinity contacted the ball, and Lakeview Academy edged Walker for 25-23 in the third.
As for Lakeview Academy, Wylie felt his players handled the pressure well in a high-stakes playoff match where neither team had much breathing room for the entirety.
The Lady Lions got plenty of production as three players finished with double-digit kills. Senior Madison Dowdy fronted the charge with 17 kills, including a crowd-erupting slam that capped a 39-shot rally and sparked a 4-0 Lakeview run in the fifth set.
Dowdy was followed by senior classmate Thrailkill with 14 kills. Anna Wylie (two blocks, two aces) added 11 and senior Garrett Green had eight. Junior setter Maddy Child (eight assists) led from the back line with three service aces, while fellow setter Maddy Towles dished a team-high 11 assists to aid the attack, and Linda Geib had four blocks.
A defensive shift by Lakeview Academy to one particular side of the net even temporarily disrupted the pursuits of Haynes, who tallied eight kills for the Wolverines in the fifth set.
But an unsteady passing game and service errors scattered throughout the match were a problem for Lakeview Academy. A misfire into the net, followed by a service error in the latter stages of the fifth set kept the Lady Lions from a first-ever state quarterfinal berth.
“In the last set, we adjusted pretty well,” Wylie said. “We just missed a couple of serves that would of helped, and got out of the attack mode with a couple of bad passes. ...That last set is only 15 points, and if you lose just a little bit of ground, you’re in trouble.”
Walker, meanwhile, was aggressive in the service game and crafty in its shot selection as early as the opening set. Midway through the opener, the Lady Wolverines took 10-straight points behind a string of well-placed kills and a handful of Lakeview errors to take a 22-11 lead.
“That was probably the key, you know, for them,” Wylie said. “They served lights out. From our side, we did not pass the ball like we needed to.”
“Congratulations to them for just keeping the pressure on. But I thought our girls handled that pressure well.”
Wylie bids farewell to a strong senior class — Thrailkill, Wylie, Dowdy, Geib and Green — which helped transform Lakeview Academy into arguably one of the premier programs in the single A classification. The Lady Lions stormed through 2018, winning their first Hall County championship, an Area 8-A/AA private title and securing back-to-back 40-win campaigns. A first-round win over Pinecrest Academy last weekend was the first playoff victory for the program in over a decade.
“The legacy of this bunch of girls, the accomplishments they created is certainly noteworthy and admirable,” the third-year Lakeview coach said. “They are a very special, amazing group of young ladies, especially for a school this size.”
While noting it will be hard to replace this class of five, Wylie said he expects others to step up in their place and keep building on this new precedent.
“We have some young girls that are playing club ball, and they seem to bought in to the system, the things we’re trying to do -- really work on the fundamentals,” Wylie said. “It’ll pay dividends in the future for sure.”