By Devin Golden
ATLANTA — Southeast Whitfield volleyball coach Jake Dickey called this his favorite team, and at least one of his players agrees.
Despite Wednesday’s season-ending loss, the Lady Raiders know they took the program to new heights this season.
Top-seeded, top-ranked Sandy Creek swept Southeast, 25-17, 25-17, 25-19, in the Class 4A state semifinals at Marist School and ended the Lady Raiders’ postseason run two wins shy of a state championship.
“Nothing but success,” said Dickey, who has led the team to the state playoffs five of his seven seasons in charge but didn’t advance past the second round until this year.
“These girls played every point tonight as hard as they could. If you’re going to go out, then go out against the best.”
The score was tied at 8 in the first game before the Lady Fighting Patriots (36-19) scored nine of 12 points and took a 17-11 lead. Southeast (37-11) scored three of the next four points, but Sandy Creek went on a 5-1 run before closing out the game with back-to-back kills from Alisha Erves.
It was those small runs the Lady Fighting Patriots — ranked No. 1 in the Ga.PrepCountry.com Class 4A coaches poll — bunched together that doomed second-ranked and fourth-seeded Southeast.
“We were trying to serve them tough, but they’re good,” Dickey said. “A few times they went on three-point runs here or there. We couldn’t keep up. We’d stay with them for a while, and they’d go on a small run.”
In the second game, Sandy Creek stretched an 8-6 lead into a 13-7 advantage before Dickey called timeout. Southeast closed to within 20-15 thanks to one of Wendy Perez’s seven kills in the match and a few Sandy Creek miscues before the Lady Fighting Patriots scored five of the next seven points. The final two came from star outside hitter Allie Davenport, who finished the match with 17 kills.
“We didn’t want to make as many errors,” Sandy Creek coach Paul Collins said. “We wanted to stay aggressive and, at times, we didn’t. (Southeast) kept hustling. They’re a great team.”
The Lady Raiders persevered again in the third game, tying at 8 and trailing 16-14 before the Lady Fighting Patriots scored six straight points off three kills, two aces and a Southeast unforced error to seemingly pull away.
“I guess our strategy was defense and trying to get them to make mistakes,” said Southeast senior outside hitter Megan Collins, who finished with five kills, as did junior Serena Ramsey.
With Sandy Creek leading 22-14, Southeast scored five of the next six points before a Lady Fighting Patriots timeout. But a kill from Erves followed by one from Davenport ended Southeast’s state-title dreams despite its late rally.
“I think we put 100 percent into it,” said Southeast senior Makayla Burse, who had 12 digs. “We could’ve done a little bit better on covering, but we did well.”
Southeast is still looking for its first GHSA team sports state title, but this was still a season of firsts for the volleyball program. In addition to their breakthrough victory against Jonesboro in the second round last week, the Lady Raiders also accumulated the most wins for a season in program history and won their second consecutive area championship.
“This is the best, the best team,” Dickey said. “I may have coached better individual players before, but everybody going all out for each other every play, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
With her eyes red from tears, senior setter Hannah Graham, who had 21 assists and 12 digs against Sandy Creek, agreed.
In her four years at Southeast, this was her favorite.
“Yes,” she said, “because everyone gets along and we have really good chemistry and love playing with one another.”
Sandy Creek advances to face Columbus, which beat Marist in the day’s early semifinal, in Saturday’s state championship at Marietta High.