October 31, 2012

Hard path to a title for Lady Raiders

Top-ranked teams clash in semifinals

Southeast Whitfield senior setter Hannah Graham admitted a victory for her team “would be an upset.”

Lady Raiders coach Jake Dickey called top-ranked Sandy Creek’s outside hitter “one of the best in Class 4A.”

Four rounds into this year’s volleyball state playoffs, Southeast will take the court as the underdog for the first time.

The Lady Raiders (37-10) and Lady Fighting Patriots (35-19) will meet at 7:30 tonight at Atlanta’s Marist School in the Class 4A semifinals, with the winner earning a spot in Saturday’s state championship at Marietta High. Columbus (29-25) and Marist (23-10) will play in the 5:30 p.m. semifinal at Marist.

The Lady Raiders are ranked No. 2 in the Class 4A coaches poll, just behind Sandy Creek, and both teams won their respective area championships.

However, the Lady Raiders are seeded fourth in the state tournament bracket, while the Lady Fighting Patriots are the No. 1 seed and won the Class 3A state title in 2011.

The Lady Raiders had never advanced past the second round before this year, but they were the higher-seeded team in each of the first three rounds this postseason and defended their home court against Lanier, Jonesboro and Woodland-Henry, dropping only one game total in those best-of-five matches.

But tonight will mark the first time the Lady Raiders have faced an opponent seeded or ranked better in the 2012 postseason.

“They obviously (seeded) us No. 4 because they thought we were No. 4,” Graham said.

“If we beat them then we proved them wrong, and if not then we were No. 4. ... We’re trying to prove something.”

The outstanding player Dickey spoke of is Allie Davenport, and he has designed the Lady Raiders’ game plan around defending against her height.

“She is 6 feet and has a 10-feet, 1-inch approach jump,” he said. “I pulled her (video) up on YouTube. She’s pretty nasty.”

The Lady Raiders have been practicing against someone of similar height, though — their coach, who played collegiate basketball.

“She’s about like me, so I’m going to get out here and pound balls tonight,” Dickey said Tuesday. “I’m going to dust off the old bones.”

Southeast sophomore middle hitter Yolanda Melgarejo believes it’s all about doing anything to slow down the speed of the ball and succeed in digging it up.

“If we can dig one out of five balls, then we’ll be good,” she said. “If we can get a touch on it, then it will be a lot easier to dig.”

There are other ways Southeast can disrupt Sandy Creek’s offense and keep Davenport from getting kill after kill, Dickey said.

“It’s digging, and we’re going to try and keep them out of system,” he said. “If we serve it tough, then it’ll be tough for them to get it to her. If we send them easy balls and they set it on the net, then she’s just going to pulverize us.

“They have a couple of weak passers we can go after. That will help us keep it away from her, if that’s possible.”

Southeast won the Area 7 title and Sandy Creek took home the Area 3 championship. So it’s not a huge surprise these are two of the final four teams remaining, but Sandy Creek coach Paul Collins and his team does not focus on wins and losses, seeds or rankings.

“We don’t focus on that,” he said. “The polls can be different. We’re going to play a quality opponent. The fact that it’s No. 1 and No. 2 is kind of cool.”

Collins, who has been Sandy Creek’s coach for 12 seasons, knows little about what the Lady Raiders will bring to Marist.

“That’s kind of the thing,” he said. “I’d rather it not be the case, but we really don’t know that much about them, so we have to take them seriously. ... Over the years, I’ve always found them as one of the stronger programs in that area.”

Despite Southeast’s recent success — five trips to at least the second round in the past seven years — Sandy Creek has more.

The Lady Fighting Patriots also won the Class 4A state title in 2008 and advanced to the state title game in 2010.

That’s more evidence, in Graham’s opinion, the Lady Raiders are not favored to win.

“We’re just going to come out and see what we can do, and hopefully pull off the upset,” she said. “It would be an upset, because they have literally the best player in the state and are the defending state champs and go this far every year.”

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