By Chris Whitfield
As the Southeast Whitfield High School volleyball team prepares to make its fifth straight appearance in the state playoffs, it might be time to bring in some more athletic trainers. Either that, or give the Lady Raiders some more padding.
Senior libero Yasmeen Paloblanco will miss today’s 6 p.m. home match against Fayette County in the opening round of the Class 4A state playoffs due to a concussion she suffered when she was accidentally kicked in the head, and freshman defensive specialist Melisa Fraire is recovering from being punched in the eye. Both injuries happened during a match.
And you thought volleyball wasn’t a contact sport.
“It just shows how hard these girls have been playing,” Southeast coach Bethany Kenemer said, “and how they are getting on the floor trying to win every point.”
The Lady Raiders are the No. 2 seed from Area 7-4A, while Fayette County is the No. 3 seed from Area 3-4A. In another state playoff matchup involving an area team, Christian Heritage School will travel to Holy Innocents’ in the Class A tournament, which starts Thursday.
Southeast Whitfield (29-12) enters the state playoffs ranked seventh in the ga.prepcountry.com Class 4A coaches poll and is coming off of a grueling area tournament in which the Lady Raiders finished as the runner-up to sixth-ranked Heritage-Catoosa. The Lady Raiders had won back-to-back area titles before being dethroned by the Lady Generals, who hosted this past weekend’s area tournament.
Last year, the Lady Raiders had the best season in the history of the program as well as any program in Murray or Whitfield counties, with their run to the Class 4A state semifinals the deepest postseason run of all time among area schools. In addition to its streak of state tournament appearances, Southeast is also trying to keep its streak of first-round wins going.
“They are looking at it as continuing what was already built before this year,” said Kenemer, who served as an assistant to head coach Jake Dickey the past seven seasons before taking over in the offseason. “You measure success by how you are progressing, and we made it to the semifinals last year and those are our expectations again this year. This year would be hard to beat that success, but we want to maintain that high level of expectations.”
Leading the way up front for the Lady Raiders this season have been Wendy Perez and Serena Ramsey, the only seniors on the roster besides Paloblanco. Junior front-line players Gaby Gonzalez and Yolanda Melgarejo have also played a big part in the offense, with sophomore setter Angie Purkey guiding the attack.
It’s on the back that Southeast must adjust most because of injuries. Fraire will play, but Paloblanco is not expected to be cleared by a doctor until Friday. If so, she would be available for Tuesday’s second round of state if the Lady Raiders were to advance.
Perez is anxious to see how the Lady Raiders will handle today’s match and whatever remains of the season.
“Some of the younger players may not know what it is like in the state playoffs, but they will step up,” Perez said. “They have all season. I think we will be all right and make a good run. It is more of a matter of better communication than we had earlier this season. We talk more on and off of the court, and that translates to better volleyball on the court.”
The Lady Raiders don’t have much in the way of scouting material on Fayette County, other than the fact that the Lady Tigers play in an area dominated by Columbus and Sandy Creek — the No. 1 and No. 4 teams in the Class 4A poll.
“I know nothing about them,” Kenemer said. “I know they play in a pretty good area, but I haven’t been able to find anything out, and I have looked on the Internet, on YouTube, and I haven’t found anything. We just have to focus on our game and our strengths. If we play our game, we will be fine.”
Messages left at the school and emails sent to Fayette County coach Bill Lightle were not returned by The Daily Citizen’s deadline on Tuesday evening.
One advantage Southeast should have is playing at home in front of a friendly crowd. The Lady Raiders developed a strong — and loud — following during last year’s postseason run, and Kenemer hopes that hasn’t changed.
“We pushed the game back to 6 p.m. just to try to get more of our students and fans here,” Kenemer said. “When we have a big crowd, you can tell a difference in how we play. We love to have our students getting rowdy, and we are excited by it.”
at Holy Innocents’
The No. 4 seed from Area 4-A, Christian Heritage (19-9) will travel to Atlanta to take on the Lady Golden Bears (28-14) at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Holy Innocents’, the Area 5-A champion, could be regarded as one of the best teams in the state regardless of classification.
The Lady Golden Bears’ losses have come to teams considered the state’s elite programs — such as seven-time state champion Westminster and six-time Class 6A champion Walton — and they’re currently ranked third in Class A after holding the top ranking earlier this season. They went 8-0 against Area 4-A competition during the regular season then won three games to claim the league’s tournament title.
“We are going to have to play really well for us to beat them,” Christian Heritage community coach Lisa Donahue said. “I haven’t seen them play this year, but they are always one of the top teams. If we can play our game and stay in control, we should do pretty well.”
Christian Heritage, which joined the Georgia High School Association prior to the 2012-13 school year, is in the GHSA state playoffs for the first time after enjoying a strong regular season. They fared well against teams from higher classifications in Murray and Whitfield counties, and they claimed a state berth from an area that includes a pair of ranked teams — No. 4 Walker and No. 8 Mount Paran Christian.
Donahue said the competition has been helpful for the Lady Lions.
“I think every day we have gotten better,” she said. “I have been happy with the freshmen and sophomores giving me everything they have. They are learning a new system, and we haven’t stalled out in the middle of the season.”
Christian Heritage is led by setter Jessica Seehorn and outside hitter Savannah Roberson, both seniors.
“Jessica runs that court really well with her experience with club ball. Her presence is real important to our success,” Donahue said. “She has a good ability to read the game and read players to distribute. If Savannah is on, she can put the ball down. It is huge for us if she has a good game.”
Holy Innocents’ outside hitter Sarah Joe was named the Area 5 player of the year and three other players — middle hitter Sara Porter, outside hitter Haley Collins and libero (defensive specialist) Mary Hollis Schmidt — were named to the all-area team.