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High school volleyball: Cherokee Bluff eliminated in state quarterfinals against Whitewater
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Cherokee Bluff's Sierra Piland returns a ball against Whitewater in the Class 4A state quarterfinals Oct. 26, 2022 in Flowery Branch. - photo by Bill Murphy

Cherokee Bluff had a hard enough job dealing with Whitewater’s big hitters and net presence on both offense and defense during their Class 4A state volleyball quarterfinal match.

The Bears task became even tougher when the visiting Wildcats forced the issue enough to limit the scoring opportunities for their own offensive leaders.

That combination, and their own errors proved too much to overcome as Whitewater ended the Bears’ season with a 25-13, 25-19, 25-22 victory Wednesday in Flowery Branch.

The sheer power of seniors Shelby Walker Chamblin (16 kills, 1 block) and Aleya Westbrook (8 kills, 3 blocks) were enough of a force to keep Cherokee Bluff on its heels throughout the match and limit quality scoring looks for Cherokee Bluff’s big hitters Grace Blythe Cornett (6 kills), Sierra Piland (7 kills) and Emma Staples (6 kills).

And when that trio, or any other Cherokee Bluff hitters, did find a quality look, state digs leader Cyleigh Sayler (match-high 36 digs) and the Whitewater back row more often than not had an answer, and was an equally important reason the Wildcats (32-4) advanced to the state semifinals and end the Bears’ season at 37-13.

“They’re a great team,” Cherokee Bluff coach Tiann Myer said of Whitewater. “They did a lot of things. They’ve got a great defense. They’ve got a great offense. We just couldn’t get a lot of shots to fall that usually (have fallen) for us this season.

“We knew (Saylers) was amazing. We knew they had an amazing outside (Chamblin). There wasn’t anything that was shocking us. It was just that we had to adjust, and times we did and at (other) times, we didn’t. They’re good.”

Whitewater showed just how good it was in the opening set by answering after Cherokee Bluff took the early 1-0 lead to score 10 of the next 11 points and basically cruise to the 25-13 victory.

However, the Bears made the Wildcats work considerably harder in the next two sets by building sizable early leads of their own at 10-5 in Set 2 and 8-3 in Set 3.

Both instances drew timeouts by Whitewater to try to change momentum, and Cherokee Bluff didn’t help its own cause with errors – one on an attack that sailed out in Set 2 and serve that went long in Set 3.

“For sure, we gave them a lot of free balls,” Myer said. “I don’t want to say a lot, but maybe a few times we could’ve put a little more heat on it. I think (Whitewater) got up in their heads a little more trying to place the ball … but that wasn’t going our way.”

Each time, the Wildcats were able to pounce on the openings, first by scoring six straight points keyed by Florida A&M commit Chamblin and fellow senior Natalie Baldwin in the second set to take a 12-11 lead before pulling away late for the 25-19 win.

Then in Set 3, Cherokee Bluff fought off Whitewater’s initial run, stretching a 10-8 lead out to 15-11, thanks to three kills by Cornett that came careful placement of taps, rather than her normal power swing.

But once again, the Wildcats had an answer, with Chamblin, Baldwin and Westbrook pacing the offense and Georgia State commit Sayler leading the defense.

“We really shifted momentum,” Whitewater coach Margaret Burke said. “We practice that a lot. That is something that we try in game play to shift whenever we have to call a timeout down by four or five. We really try to be smart with our plays and take momentum and refocus when we get back out there on the court.”

After Cornett’s last tap, Westbrook pounded a shot through a block attempt at the net to ignite a run of seven straight points that vaulted Whitewater into an 18-15 lead.

The Bears managed to pull back to within a single point five more times, the last time at 23-22 when Cornett powered a blast off a Whitewater block attempt at the net.

But Westbrook responded with a kill on the next point, and Baldwin found open floor with a tap to put away the final set, 25-22, and the match.

As disappointing as the loss was, Myer pointed out how much the Bears accomplished this season, including bouncing back from a modest 8-9 start to win 29 of their final 33 matches, including taking the Hall County tournament championship and Region 8-4A title before reaching the quarterfinals.

“I feel like we grew a lot and figured out our chemistry,” Myer said. “It worked. Can’t take away Hall County champs. Can’t take away region champs. This will be a special group for me considering (this was) my first year with them. They’ve been excellent. We had a great senior class that set the tone for our underclassmen. They’ll do great things when they get out of here because of who they are.”

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