MARIETTA — The future of Buford volleyball is brighter than ever, head coach Hadli Daniels said minutes after the Lady Wolves emerged from their locker room as Class AAAA state runners-up.
Her players will still find it a bitter pill to swallow after dropping three unanswered points in the final set to Marist, which won its seventh state title 22-25, 25-19, 25-16, 20-25, 15-12 Saturday afternoon in Marietta.
Buford, on the other hand, must wait at least one more year to earn that honor.
“It’s hard to be down 2-1 in the state championship,” Daniels said of the early hole Buford found itself in before the fourth set. “I feel like that fifth set could have gone either way. I told the girls to keep their heads high. We’re not where we wanted to be, but they put it all out on the floor and did their best.”
Sophomore Gabby Curry (20 kills) led a strong revival in the penultimate game to breathe life into Buford’s state title hopes. But the War Eagles (36-10) got hot at the right time in the final set and flooded the court when junior Leila King’s shot was returned into the net by two Buford defenders to seal the championship victory.
The Lady Wolves (40-3) finish 2014 with the most wins of a season while going undefeated in all home and away matches. Buford was only defeated by one team (East Coweta twice) prior to Saturday’s final.
Yet the Lady Wolves were still underdogs compared to No. 2 seed Marist, which relied heavily on senior Sydney Leimbach to set blocks and finish kills throughout the match. Leimbach began to make her presence felt early in the second set when she won four straight service points.
Her tall frame consistently frustrated Buford’s hitters. Leimbach’s block on a Curry tip forced the lead to 17-12 before junior Kate Connolly stretched the lead to seven when her thunderous right-hand hit was too much for Avery Cason to get her hands on.
“I just knew I should leave it all on the court,” said Leimbach, who posed for myriad photo opportunities in the Marietta gym after the win. “Our team motto is to take it and really, that’s the way I play.”
Marist never let up in the third set. A vicious kill by Leimbach was followed by Hanna Weiland’s well-placed shot that went just wide of Buford senior Corbin Farr to give Marist an 11-4 lead. Curry’s deft return gave Buford a lifeline, but the War Eagles would win four of the next five points before Buford had scored its 10th.
“In the second and third game, we made too many mental errors,” Daniels said. “It’s hard to be down 2-1, but we started playing our game and our ball at our tempo.”
Freshman Tatum Shipes (23 kills) showed off her own brand of defense in helping Buford take a 20-18 advantage late in the fourth set. Her tip at the net kept the Lady Wolves on the service line before Cason extended a comfortable Buford lead to four.
And it seemed like the momentum was on Buford’s side when Morgan Mitchell (49 assists) went all out for a fingertip dig before finishing off a point to tie at 3-all in the final game.
But Marist ground out three final points, and the team was jubilant when King’s overhead lob couldn’t be returned.
Buford players, many with tears in their eyes, were forced to settle for the second-place trophy.
Much of the team will be available to challenge for the 2015 state title. Eleven of Daniels’ 17-strong roster are underclassmen, and libero Mikhayla Riegel (41 digs) will be the lone starter graduating.
“They’re fighters,” Daniels said of her team. “Losing two in a row is a hard thing to come back from, but they’re fighters and they’re hard to stop. I’m just proud of them.”