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Gainesville volleyball in uncharted territory
Five area teams in second round of state volleyball tournament
Gainesville volleyball players Laura Beth Lorentz, front, and Carmen Rae Torrey block a shot during a recent game. - photo by Tom Reed

When Gainesville won its 23rd game of the year and clinched a spot in the state playoffs, the whole team celebrated an important milestone in program history; the first trip to state.

Junior Kaylin Walden was surprised.

"Coming into this season I had no idea that they hadn’t had good previous records," the transfer from Jubilee Christian said. "The first day of practice I saw the players and thought, ‘this is a good team.’"

The Lady Elephants (24-12) have proven what Walden and first-year coach Randi Orr saw right away; that now into the second round of the playoffs, this truly is a good team.

Walden, who won a National Association of Christian Athlete’s Division IV national championship last year as a sophomore at Jubilee Christian, is happy to be a piece in the Lady Red Elephant’s historic run.

"It’s almost like we’re a new team all together," Walden said. "It’s probably one of the best feelings in the world that I’ve been able to help them out."

The junior, starting at setter for the first time, admits that her job is easier with all of the talented hitters around her.

Walden is, however, a key piece in turning around a team that had won 13 matches the last two years combined. The setter, along with a loaded senior class and a coach who played at Brenau University, have set the program off on a whole new course.

"It does help a lot to have her," Orr said of Walden. "It helps to have her court awareness, her hands."

And now her knowledge of playing in the playoffs is coming in handy, because the Red Elephants aren’t content simply to have won their first postseason win in school history, a feat which they accomplished with ease, sweeping past Cross Creek 25-9, 25-18, 27-25.

"We’re going in with very high expectations," Orr said. "I have no doubt at all that we will be ready. The girls worked so hard for this."

Gainesville travels to Locust Grove (29-17, No. 1 Area 4) for a 5:30 start Tuesday with a chance to reach the championship bracket. The Wildcats, who Orr said are a strong serving team and aggressive at the net, swept Arabia Mountain in the opening round.

The Lady Red Elephants are just one of five area teams playing Tuesday with a shot at reaching the quarterfinals, and one of three Hall County teams from Region 8-AAA.

North Hall (25-20) is looking for a second consecutive trip to the championship round after sweeping Westside-Augusta at home. The Lady Trojans are on the road at 6 p.m. at Sandy Creek (40-7), the Area 1-AAA champs and the top-ranked team in the state.

"It will take the best we have," said North Hall coach Emi Hughes. "I feel like if we play as a team we can give Sandy Creek a good match.

"It’s not impossible but it will be the classic David vs. Goliath match-up."

As far as seedings go, West Hall (35-7) may actually be in a more favorable match-up than last week.

To open the state playoffs, the No. 4 seed Lady Spartans had to upset top-seeded Grovetown, which they did in just three games.

"This is a resilient group of girls," said West Hall coach Joe Nelson. "I think the reason is that the core of this team has been with me now for three years and have experienced the up and downs of a season and realize that one can come back.

"This team has the potential to go far into the tournament."

To win again, West Hall will have to get by Area 4-AAA No. 2 Veterans (25-14) at 5:30 p.m. in Macon.

"We had info from five coaches on Grovetown for the two practice sessions we had before we played them. Same on Veterans," Nelson said. "I try to get at least two perspectives from coaches who won and two who lost to the playoff team."

Jefferson coach Michael Paul, who used to run a volleyball clinic with Nelson when the two coaches were at Chestatee and North Hall, respectively, has been preparing his team as well for a second-round opponent. Jefferson swept Landmark Christian in the opening round.

Unlike the other area teams, the Lady Dragons (32-9) don’t have to travel. The No. 2 seed out of 8-AA/A hosts Hebron Christian (27-19) at 6:30 p.m.

"We are very excited to be in the second round "sweet 16" for the first time and of course the added bonus of hosting," said Paul, who has coached the team for five of the six years the program has been in existence. "We will need to continue to do the things that got us here against (Hebron Christian).

"Serve well, pass well, and have a balanced attack."

Buford (23-13) is also headed to the second round for the first time in school history. The Lady Wolves swept Brookstone at home in the opening round.

The team, led by dangerous hitter Maggie Roper, travels to 3-AA/A top seed Eagles Landing Christian (33-7) for a 5 p.m. start.

"The girls are confident and playing some great volleyball right now," said Buford coach Hadli Daniels. "We will definitely have to be on top of our game from here on out."

All of the remaining area teams appear to be peaking, or close to it, at the right time of the year.

For Gainesville, this is just the culmination of a goal that only a few could have seen coming.

"Before this season started, we made a personal goal to make it to state. With that goal set before us, we trained harder physically and mentally than ever before," Orr said. "These are talented girls who took it upon themselves to put in the extra time offseason to be better. Coming into a new season with high expectations, the girls raised the bar and held each other to a higher level of play.

"The heart of this Gainesville team is one in a million."

Now the Red Elephants have a chance to become one of eight teams in Class AAA to reach the third round of the state tournament.

Walden, for one, wouldn’t be surprised.

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