The good news for those teams not wanting to depend on a win against Oconee County in the Area 8-AAA tournament for a state playoff berth is they don’t have to.
With the double-elimination bracket for the tournament that opens today at North Hall, and top-seeded and Class AAA’s No. 6-ranked Lady Warriors (28-14) leading the way, it’s completely possible to lose a head-to-head meeting and still claim one of the four spots to the state tournament.
“I’d say that Oconee County is the odds-on favorite to win it,” said West Hall (22-14) coach Joe Nelson.
However, the strength of the tourney rests on its depth. Oconee County, which finished undefeated in Area 8-AAA, North Hall — which only lost to Oconee County — Johnson, Chestatee and West Hall are all coming off a solid regular season and look to be legitimate contenders for a playoff berth. However, according to Nelson,
No. 6-10 seeds Eastside, Monroe Area, Walnut Grove, Lanier and Gainesville are all improved since the season opened.
“The No. 2 through No. 7 seed are all really in the running,” Nelson said.
The parity of Area 8-AAA has been obvious with some of the results that have played out over the course of the season. The biggest upset came when No. 7-seed Monroe Area (11-24) topped third-seeded Johnson (17-20) on Sept 14. Then just two weeks ago, Chestatee (10-23) landed an upset of West Hall in a tri-match at North Hall, which resulted in the Lady War Eagles coming in as the No. 4 seed.
As for North Hall (24-11), it came within a whisker Monday of upsetting Oconee County. Lady Trojans coach Emi Hughes feels like her program is hitting their stride at just the right time, and would love the opportunity to face the Lady Warriors again on their home court in Saturday’s finals.
“Playing Oconee County so close was a huge confidence boost for our team,” Hughes said. “It let our team know that we can play with them.”
Today’s play begins with matches at 5 p.m. with Walnut Grove facing Lanier, and Monroe Area against Gainesville. The Walnut Grove/Lanier winner advances to face Oconee County at 6 p.m. The Monroe Area/Gainesville winner draws North Hall.
Even as the top two seeds of the tourney, Oconee County and North Hall both still need two wins to qualify for state.
“I feel like the No. 2 seed is a good place to be,” Hughes said.
This season, Area 8-AAA was drastically altered with Flowery Branch, West Forsyth and Creekview — all strong volleyball schools — moving up in classification. However, the addition of Oconee County, a Class AAA state semifinalist the past two seasons, and Eastside, led by 6-foot outside hitter Katie Johnson, helped keep the area at a considerably high level.
“It’s going to be a fun tournament,” Hughes said.