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High school volleyball: North Hall feels ready for chance in state quarterfinals
North Hall's Lexie Martin (5) returns a shot against Gainesville in the third-place match of the Hall County championship Aug. 29, 2022 in Gainesville. - photo by Bill Murphy

For the past decade, North Hall’s volleyball team has been a familiar presence in the state volleyball playoffs for whichever classification it has competed in during a particular season.

So it was no surprise to see the Trojans back in the Class 4A state playoffs this fall.

However, their return to the state quarterfinals, where they will travel to Trinity Christian for a best-of-five match Wednesday in Sharpsburg, for the first time after a four-year absence has created a different atmosphere in those previous seasons.

“I feel like personally, just making sure these girls know that this is … an expectation, for us to make deep (state) runs, and for them to continue that tradition,” North Hall coach Emi Hughes said as her team prepares for its first quarterfinal match since the 2017 squad made a run to the Class 3A semifinals. “They know that, and they see the banners (in the gym) every day, and they want to have a little part in that and keep it going.

“So yeah, we feel like we always belong in the mix. … The last couple of years with not having many seniors until now, they all are seniors. They want to leave their mark. They’re definitely wanting to make some waves.”

The Trojans’ 26-19 record heading into Wednesday’s match would seem to indicate that their current run is a bit on the unlikely side.

However, a deeper dive into the team’s progress indicates that this run isn’t as unexpected as one might think.

Despite the record, North Hall comes into Wednesday’s quarterfinal more than adequately battle tested.

From the battles of a very competitive Area 8-4A – including region champion and fellow quarterfinalist Cherokee Bluff, which hosts Whitewater in another quarterfinal match Wednesday – to an equally challenging non-area schedule, Hughes is convinced the matches the Trojans have faced this fall has made them ready for this moment.

“We feel like with the area we play in, we’re prepared for the state tournament … in a way,” Hughes said. “And our (non-area) schedule, I mean, I do the best I can to put the girls in situations to where they’re going to see possible teams that are going to play in the state tournament from their areas that will prepare us for who we will see (in the state tournament).

“Win or lose those (matches), we’re not surprised by what we see (at state). I think we’ve had some good experience to prepare for this upcoming moment, for sure.”

Between the attacking firepower of junior Claire Bowen (217 kills) and seniors Gavyn Graber (179 kills) and Amelia Shoemaker, the setting and serving of Lexie Martin (570 assists, 96 aces) and defense from the likes of Bowen (50 blocks) and Sarah Davidson (33 blocks) at the net and Anna Kate Shoaf (329 digs) and Martin (240 digs) on the back row, North Hall has done a little bit of everything to make steady improvement over the course of the season.

“I would say it’s been a pretty good team effort,” Hughes said. “All the way around, they’re looking really good. I don’t want to say one person is standing out because we’re getting a group effort.

“Our defense has been lights out (lately). They really have stepped it up, and they’re making it very tough for every (opponent) we play to score points, or to score cheap points, for sure. They’ve been great. Our defense has been fantastic.”

Indeed, the Trojans’ defense has been a key factor in a recent surge that has seen them win six of their last eight matches after dropping four matches – three to quarterfinal programs in other classifications and another that advanced to the second round – on a single play day Oct. 1.

And like every other area, defensive contributions have come from throughout the line-up, and have been aided by some technical on-court adjustments.

“We’ve shifted our defense over,” said Graber, who has added 86 digs to her offensive production. “When (opposing teams) hit more, we can pass (better). Our defense was all scrambled together (earlier in the season), but we moved our libero to left back instead of middle back, and the outsides are playing middle back. I think it’s really helped us.”

Wednesday’s state quarterfinals

Class 4A

Cherokee Bluff vs. Whitewater, 5:30 p.m.

North Hall at Trinity Christian, 5:30 p.m.

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