For a time, the South Forsyth volleyball team had a mental block with Harrison. Just couldn’t beat the Lady Hoyas. Three straight times, as far back as online records show. But on Sept. 7, 2013, the Lady War Eagles defeated Harrison. They’re 5-0 ever since against the Lady Hoyas. Mental block cleared.
For a while, the Lady War Eagles had a mental block with Johns Creek. Just couldn’t beat the Lady Gladiators. Five straight times going back to 2013. But on Oct. 7 of this season, the Lady War Eagles defeated Johns Creek en route to winning the Area 6-AAAAAA Championship. Mental block cleared.
But now, South has a new mental block: Walton. Just can’t beat the Lady Raiders right now. Five straight times, as far back as I can find online. The latest had the most at stake, a 13-25, 12-25, 21-25 defeat on Saturday in the Class AAAAAA State Championship at Marietta High School.
This mental block remains.
It cannot be overstated that this Walton team that won its fifth state title in the past six seasons and 10th in the past quarter-century Saturday was a different breed of high school volleyball team. South found that out in its very first match of the season, a 13-25, 18-25, 13-25 defeat at Walton in front of a student section the size of which rivals most Forsyth County high school basketball student sections.
On the block and in their offense, the Lady Raiders brought three 6-foot-1 (Tai Bierria, Meghan Froemming, Riley Spurlin) and two 6-foot-3 (Gabby Gonzales, Reilly MacNeill) hitters. It had a senior libero in head coach Suzanne Fitzgerald’s daughter, Celeste, and a seasoned setter in junior Dalaney Hans. If the Lady Raiders had a weakness, no one in Georgia could find it. They finished the season 37-4, with all four losses coming to teams from out of state.
“I don’t know how you prepare them for Walton,” South head coach Kelly Wren said. “They haven’t lost a set all year to a single Georgia team.”
The Lady Raiders will likely always be this talented give or take. Four of those 6-foot-plus towers were freshmen, so , yeah, Walton is going to be good for a while.
But South is probably only going to get better. When it comes to program-building, Walton has been among the state’s powerhouses for a few decades. South has only recently solidified its place among the elite.
The roster will turn over some next season, as the Lady War Eagles lose two starters in all-state setter Courtney Darling and outside hitter Giana Frangipane. But South returns a formidable array of talent in hitters Lily Kincaid, Avery Kline, Shea McNamara and Amanda Nugent; defensive specialists Savian Jordan and Carley McCravy; and libero Erin Yeatman. Except for Kline, all will be seniors next season.
They all know the gratification that came with bursting through those mental blocks of the past. The one against Johns Creek this season seemed the one that stoked South’s confidence and helped it become the first Forsyth County team to ever reach the state championship of the GHSA playoffs.
“That was when we really found ourselves and were like, ‘OK, yeah, we can do this,’” Yeatman said.
Walton is the only mental block that can possibly remain for South. On reputation alone, there is no better program to defeat in Georgia. The Lady War Eagles can’t lose to Walton in a moment where the stakes are any higher than they were Saturday.
South may have already begun to chip away at its mental block in Saturday’s third set. The Lady War Eagles took a 17-10 lead on a kill from Kincaid through that imposing Walton block. In that extended run you saw all the elements that made South so successful and exciting this season.
“That was us,” Yeatman said. “Our first two sets, I don’t know what was wrong with us. We just couldn’t play and be ourselves. But the third set we came out and we were ourselves.”
South should hold on to that third set. In it was definitive proof of the Lady War Eagles’ ambitious hope: they can play with Walton.
But South still has one more step to take to defeating Walton.
“We have to be mentally tough enough to get past it,” Wren said. “Do I think it will happen while I’m at South? Sure as hell do. I think we will get past it, because we’ll keep building. That’s what we do. I don’t think anyone ever counts us out, not anymore.”
Brian Paglia is sports editor at the Forsyth County News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 770-205-8976 or follow him on Twitter at @BrianPaglia.