TYRONE — Tatum Shipes danced all through the pregame, hollered during the warmups and high-fived her teammates after just about every point of Wednesday's volleyball state semifinal win 25-20, 30-28, 23-25, 25-20 over Sandy Creek.
By the end of Buford’s four-set win over the Patriots (45-8), the freshman was leaping into the arms of her friends.
For the first time in school history, the Lady Wolves (40-2) will advance to the Class AAAA championship game on Saturday at Marietta High. Buford will play Marist, a six-time state title winner who beat semifinal opponent Woodward Academy in straight sets. The game will begin at 11 a.m.
Confidence is soaring for the fourth-seed Buford.
“We can keep going forever,” Shipes said, with a smile plastered on her face. “I’m very confident. We’re really feeling it and it’s unbelievable.
“We were born ready.”
Shipes and sophomore Morgan Mitchell were a constant threat at the net and made their presence felt on a night where the Sandy Creek student section was vocal.
Patriot junior Dariah Powell (five assists, two kills) was forced to hit cross-court shots every time the two long defenders were on her side of the net. And the pressure paid off when Buford rode a six-point win streak midway through the first set to secure the first set by a healthy margin.
The Wolves were severely tested soon after.
Autumn Martin (10 kills, six assists) found a groove with her spiking game and found paydirt on both sidelines to bolster an early 12-8 Sandy Creek lead.
Buford struck back when head coach Hadli Daniels brought Shipes back in, who would help her team win the next three of four points.
“Amazing, amazing,” she said of Shipes and Mitchell (46 assists, four blocks). “Morgan is the unsung hero, she was phenomenal. And Tatum, of course, she really saved us tonight. When we needed a ball put away, she put it away for us.”
The game stayed deadlocked for five straight game points as neither team could pull away for a two-point lead.
Eventually a Mitchell volley went between two Patriot defenders before Gabby Curry’s (20 assists) clutch dig helped to finally clinch a 30-28 marathon win.
It seemed as if Buford could do no wrong when the team won the first seven of eight points to open up the third set, but Sandy Creek valiantly fought back. Sophomore Kendall Wilson rattled off four straight points on serve before junior Alexis Broadwater contributed three kills to cut an early Wolves’ lead to one.
Mitchell’s missed return from four yards out gave Sandy Creek its first lead, 22-21. Outside hitter Mya Jenkins would breathe life into her team’s playoff hopes when her block against Avery Cason won the set for the Patriots.
“The third game was rough,” Daniels said, “because I thought we had it all the way. It was a tough one to lose, but they kept their composure. We didn’t play the best ball today, but they didn’t let the emotions take over. It was tough to play on the road and I think girls used it to fire them up.”
And it was Shipes yet again to collect back-to-back kills to help Buford on to a 13-10 lead in the decisive fourth set before senior Corbin Farr won three straight points on serve to put the Wolves mere minutes from victory.
The Wolves were celebrating as soon as they saw Powell’s serve hit the net.
“I think we realized what we had slacked off on in the third game, so we ran quicker stuff,” said Shipes, amid countless picture opportunities and hugs. “We kept the game fast. The game plan was to put it down, have Morgan setting the hot hitters and they just didn’t have strong hitters when I was out at net. We’ve worked so hard this whole season. The whole thing is working to this and now we’re here.”
Even after 40 wins, a region title and a state title berth, Daniels said she still thinks others might consider Buford to be the underdog on Saturday.
Not that the Lady Wolves care, of course.
“We’ve felt all year like we’ve had a great year, we’ve only been beaten by one team (East Coweta), but we still feel like people don’t see the potential that we have and they’ve worked so hard to get here. We’ll be confident on Saturday.”