By Devin Golden
Southeast Whitfield High School’s volleyball team is No. 2 in Area 7-4A right now.
Come Saturday evening, the Lady Raiders hope to celebrate being No. 1 once again.
Southeast’s quest for a third straight area tournament title starts today, and the Lady Raiders will be joined in the 7-4A field by Dalton, Northwest Whitfield and five other league teams in the double-elimination event.
First-round matches will be hosted by the higher seeds today, with the remainder of the bracket playing out Saturday in No. 1 seed Heritage-Catoosa’s gym.
Also starting today and finishing Saturday are the Area 4-3A and Area 5-2A tournaments. Coahulla Creek and North Murray join the Area 4-3A teams that will play the entire tournament at North Murray. In Area 5-2A, Murray County will play at Calhoun today, with the tournament finishing Saturday at Model High School in Rome.
The top four finishers in each tournament earn berths to their respective classification’s state tournament.
In 2011, Southeast captured its first league championship by winning the Area 7-3A title. Last season, the Lady Raiders won the Area 7-4A crown and advanced to the Class 4A semifinals, an unprecedented run for a team from Murray or Whitfield counties in the state playoffs.
In both seasons, though, Southeast (26-10) started as the No. 1 seed for the area tournament. This year the Lady Raiders are looking up at Heritage.
The Lady Generals went undefeated in seven area matches and will host eighth-seeded Pickens at 5:30 p.m., while the Lady Raiders earned a No. 2 seed with a 5-2 record against league competition. Southeast will host seventh-seeded Gilmer at 5:30 p.m.
“I honestly think because we’ve lost some games this year, it has humbled us this year,” said Lady Raiders coach Bethany Kenemer, who is in her first season leading the program after serving as an assistant in previous years. “This year, we’ve been able to take a step back and look at every game one at a time. I think the losses along the way this year have helped us.”
This season has been one of transition for Southeast, which had to replace setter Hannah Graham and outside hitter Megan Collins. Graham and Collins were The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Volleyball Player of the Year for 2011 and 2012, respectively, but were lost to graduation.
“Last year we had people in leadership positions, but this year we’ve had certain people step up and fill those roles,” Kenemer said. “I think it’s tougher just because (winning) is what they’re used to. Some of these girls have only played on area championship teams. It took a while getting used to teams not giving us anything. I think it’s something that as the season has gone on, we’ve gotten used to it.
“We’re not the underdogs anymore.”
Northwest (20-18) is seeded fourth after finishing 4-3 in league play and will host No. 5 seed Ridgeland at 5:30 p.m. The Lady Bruins reached the state playoffs last season after claiming a fourth-place finish in Area 7-4A and coach Jennifer Quinn hopes for a repeat of at least that finish in this year’s tournament.
“With the way the area has been going, any team can beat any other team,” Quinn said. “The only team that has stood their ground the whole season has been Heritage.”
Dalton (6-24) finished 3-4 in area matches and will travel to third-seeded LaFayette for a 5:30 p.m. start. The Lady Catamounts finished second in last year’s area tournament and reached the state tournament’s second round.
“When it comes to (the area tournament), you have two days you are playing, and one bad day can cost you,” Dalton coach Joey Wills said. “The middle of the pack is flexible. Northwest has been on the bubble. LaFayette has been on the bubble. Ridgeland went on a strong streak at the beginning. It’ll be a race to see who can play the best.”
North Murray (20-21-3) enters the tournament as the No. 2 seed and will play No. 7 seed Ringgold at 6 p.m., with eighth-seeded Cartersville facing top-seeded Sonoraville at the same time. Those two first-round matches follow fifth-seeded Coahulla Creek’s tilt with No. 4 seed Adairsville and third-seeded Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe against No. 6 seed Fannin County at 5 p.m.
The losers of those four matches will play in elimination contests at 7 p.m., dwindling the tournament field to six for Saturday’s conclusion.
Last year, North Murray’s Lady Mountaineers entered the tournament as the No. 3 seed and finished third before advancing to the second round of the Class 3A state tournament bracket.
North Murray coach Connie Hudgins said the team’s preseason goal was to finish with at least as many wins as losses. But for a young roster — the Lady Mountaineers only returned one starter, middle hitter Grace Phillips — finding a way back to the state playoffs would be a nice bonus.
“There were some matches where we got lucky and other matches where we didn’t play as well and lost (this season),” Hudgins said. “So even in a rebuilding year, we’ve been competitive.”
Coahulla Creek’s Lady Colts (10-26) are trying to make the state tournament for the first time in the program’s three-year history. Coahulla Creek was a win shy of reaching state last year.
“I think it’s up in the air,” Lady Colts coach Julie Norton said. “The fact that we’re sitting at the fifth spot and have beaten the second-place team (North Murray) a couple times this year, I think it depends on who shows up (today) and Saturday and who wants it.”
Murray County (3-20) is the seventh seed and will play at Calhoun’s gym against the second-seeded host Lady Yellow Jackets at 5 p.m. Third-seeded Armuchee faces No. 6 seed Pepperell in the other match at Calhoun’s gym, while No. 4 seed Coosa and No. 5 seed Model play at Chattooga, which enters the tournament as the top seed and has a first-round bye.
At Calhoun, the winners of the first two matches will play at 7 p.m., with the losers not playing again until Saturday. At Chattooga, the winner of Coosa versus Model will play the host, with no other matches until Saturday at Model.
Last season, Murray County finished a win shy of the Class 2A state tournament. Coach Kim Richards said her team is “cautiously optimistic” about its chances of reaching the state playoffs this year.