WATKINSVILLE – When North Hall and Gainesville battled through the third game of Saturday’s Area 8-AAA tournament match at Oconee County High, each and every point was contested like it was make or break.
After splitting the first two games, both were fighting and scrapping to try and put the other away in this, the third place game. Tied 17-all, the Lady Trojans (24-20) finally went on a 6-0 run to put the match away with a 24-26, 25-17, 25-17 win, earning the home court, No. 2 seed to the Class AAA state tournament that opens Wednesday in Gainesville.
North Hall lost to No. 5 Oconee County (25-7, 25-12, 25-9) in the tournament championship match. The Trojans, which entered the tournament as the No. 5 seed, were playing in the finals without rightside hitter McKenna Rushton, who sustained what their coach Emi Hughes believed to be a twisted ankle between matches.
Hughes was pleased they were able to make it back to the playoffs this year. Earning a home match to start the state tournament was icing on the cake.
“Coming in as a No. 5 seed, we just wanted to make a statement, which I feel like we did,” Hughes said. “Our defense was as good as it’s been all season.”
Oconee County repeated as Area 8-AAA champion. North Hall is the No. 2 seed to state, Gainesville earned No. 3 and West Hall is fourth. Teams from Area 8-AAA will face an opponent from Area 3-AAA in the opening round of state on Wednesday.
For North Hall, Sarah Paschall had 37 digs and 11 blocks over the course of four matches Saturday, including a loss to Oconee County to start the day, followed by a win against West Hall in the fourth-place game.
Rushton had 15 kills and nine blocked shots for the Lady Trojans, and Kristina Gregory added 44 assists and eight aces. Allie Staub had 64 digs for North Hall, while Madison Copeland chipped in 22 blocks and four kills.
With the overall quality of talent in 8-AAA, its state qualifiers are optimistic about a possible deep run in the playoffs. Not only was Oconee County a top five team all season, but the Lady Spartans spent eight weeks ranked in the coaches poll.
“All four teams from 8-AAA could make it pretty far at state,” Lady Spartans coach Joe Nelson said. “This is a very strong Area for volleyball.”
The biggest turnaround story is what Gainesville (23-12) accomplished this season. A year after winning only four matches, Lady Red Elephants coach Randi Orr has their program geared up for their first playoff appearance.
The third-seeded Lady Red Elephants knocked off West Hall (16-25, 25-12, 25-19) to open winner’s bracket play Saturday. Then Gainesville lost to Oconee County (25-12, 23-25, 25-16) and then dropped its three-game match to North Hall.
The deciding factor, according to Orr, against North Hall was errors at the net. However, that doesn’t overshadow the fact that Gainesville is going to get a crack at the playoffs.
“This has been a very gratifying season,” Orr said. “It’s been a season to remember.
“We just want to play loose and have fun in the playoffs.”
On Saturday, Lauren Carter finished with 101 digs for Gainesville, while Kaylin Walden had 55 assists. Anna Walker had 22 kills over three matches, and Laura Beth Lorentz had five kills against North Hall.
After losing to Gainesville to open the day in winner’s bracket play, West Hall beat Monroe Area (23-25, 25-19, 25-18) to secure a playoff spot, also setting a new school record with 34 wins in a single season.
Leaders for the Lady Spartans included Stephanie Rowland (25 kills, nine blocks), Tonya Bennett (22 kills, 21 digs), Laykin Herford (70 assists), LeNiesha Kearse (12 blocks) and Carrie Ruis (six aces).
Despite facing a road match to open state, Nelson said West Hall is just thrilled to be playoff bound.
“We’ve had a fantastic year,” Nelson said. “We want to go out there and play good.”