Southeast Whitfield High School’s volleyball team made an adventurous — and for programs in Murray and Whitfield counties, unprecedented — run to the Class 4A state semifinals a year ago.
Against visiting Fayette County on Wednesday night, the Lady Raiders made an adventure out of just getting through the opening round.
Southeast swept the Lady Tigers in the best-of-five match as the Class 4A state playoffs began, but the Lady Raiders were far from dominant in the 25-21, 27-25, 25-18 victory.
“It was like a roller coaster with us, and it normally is,” senior outside hitter Serena Ramsey said. “We just have to keep each other up. ... We trusted each other and trusted our teammates to get us back up whenever we were down.”
Fayette County (22-14), the No. 3 seed from Area 3-4A, never held a commanding lead in any single game but also never seemed far from potentially causing a lot of trouble for Southeast (30-12), Area 7-4A’s No. 2 seed and the seventh-ranked team in the ga.prepcountry.com Class 4A coaches poll.
After winning a rally point to stretch their lead to 22-16 in the opening game, the Lady Raiders faulted their next serve and Fayette County’s Aaliyah Davis served her team to within 22-21 before Southeast stopped the comeback. Lady Raiders senior middle hitter Wendy Perez’s softly tipped kill finished the game, but not before Fayette County had served notice it intended to present a challenge.
The Lady Tigers kept pace even better in the second game and were up 24-22 before Southeast rallied, with the game ending on a shot down the left line by Ramsey, who finished the match with six kills. Fayette County led just once in the third game, at 10-9, but closed the gap to 18-17 before Southeast pulled away for good.
Lady Raiders coach Bethany Kenemer, who’s in her first season leading the program after previously serving as an assistant, readily acknowledged her team will have to be better to keep its season going beyond Tuesday’s second round. Southeast will travel to Atlanta to face Area 5 champion Marist, a 3-0 winner against West Laurens in the first round.
However, Kenemer also saw something in the way her players — only a few of whom saw extensive playing time during last year’s postseason run — found their resolve in the tough moments against Fayette County.
“We played probably the worst we’ve played in a while,” Kenemer said. “But we hung with it, we stayed with it and a win’s a win. That’s the thing — we’re in the Sweet 16.”
Kenemer said her team has made a habit of playing up or down to its competition this season, so she’s optimistic facing six-time Georgia High School Association state champion Marist (29-12) will be the challenge the Lady Raiders need. Southeast also should benefit from the return of senior libero Yasmeen Paloblanco, who is expected to be medically cleared Friday.
Paloblanco missed the Area 7-4A tournament in addition to Wednesday’s match after suffering a concussion when she was accidentally kicked in the head during competition. In her absence, freshman Melisa Fraire — normally a defensive specialist — stepped in to play the defensively focused position and tallied 16 digs against Fayette County.
But Ramsey and Perez said the Lady Raiders failed to communicate as well as they needed to without Paloblanco, whose ability to scramble for the ball makes that less of a necessity when she’s in the lineup.
“I didn’t think we played to the best of our abilities,” said Perez, who recorded a team-best 16 kills to go with 11 digs. “We’ve just got to talk a lot more.”
The Lady Raiders found their footing on more than one occasion with solid serving by sophomore outside hitter Tori Brock, who had a pair of aces, and sophomore setter Angie Purkey, who had five aces to go with 33 assists. More consistency from Fayette County might have made things even more interesting than the Lady Raiders would have liked.
“When we were able to get a good pass and a good set, we were effective,” said Lady Tigers coach Bill Lightle, whose team was in the state playoffs for the second straight year and improved on a 16-16 mark in 2012. “But we weren’t consistent with that all night long.”
Southeast’s postseason success a year ago was steered by a trio of seniors — McKayla Burse, Megan Collins and Hannah Graham — who earned individual accolades and took the program to new heights. With that group lost to graduation, it will be up to younger players to make a difference.
But all of the Lady Raiders now have experience in the state playoffs, and Kenemer is looking forward to seeing how they build on it.
“We had two freshmen out there and two sophomores who didn’t play varsity last year out there, so you’re looking at four players who are young and new, and even though the other girls have been in the state playoffs before, they haven’t,” Kenemer said. “Now that the first round is over, they should be (ready for) the second round.”
Gaby Gonzalez added eight kills for the Lady Raiders, while Yolanda Melgarejo had seven.