Fantastic four
Wesleyan beats Lovett to capture fourth straight state championship

MARIETTA - Even champion boxers must demonstrate the ability to take a punch every once in a while.

Like a champion fighter, top-ranked Wesleyan certainly showed it had anything but a glass jaw in its Class AA/A state championship volleyball match against No. 2 Lovett.

The Wolves endured some major haymakers from the Lions early on before turning the tide and finally delivering the knockout blow for a 16-25, 25-17, 25-15, 25-19 win Saturday at Marietta High School.

It was the fourth consecutive state title for Wesleyan (52-6) and perhaps the most satisfying for coach Ted Russell because of the way Lovett (32-6) made his team come from behind to earn it.

"I've got to give a lot of credit to Lovett," Russell said. "They came out and made us play hard. ... We appreciate that they came out and made us play at a higher level. That made it more fun."

The Wolves were having anything but fun after trailing most of the opening game and finally dropping it 25-16. Charlayna Braxton pounded down four kills and added a block to lead a 10-1 Lovett run after the game was tied at 15.

The Lions then took as much as a 13-8 lead in the second game, and still led 17-16 after a kill by Leslie Miller.

That's when Anne Marie Armstrong literally stepped up at the service line.

After a Lovett service error tied the game, the junior middle hitter reeled off eight straight points at the line - including three direct service winners and a kill from the back row - to pull the Wolves even in the match with a 25-17 win.

"I knew it was my time to be a leader, and I did my best," said Armstrong, who finished with a match-best 22 kills and added 13 digs on defense.

"The first game was a little shaky. Everyone on the team was a little nervous at first. The second game, we got all those nerves out."

Betsy Smith also stepped up big with two of her 14 kills in the decisive run, and the Florida-bound senior stepped up even bigger after Wesleyan took a 10-9 lead in Game 3.

Smith had two kills, three block assists and two aces as Wesleyan outscored Lovett 15-6 the rest of the way to post a 25-15 win and stand one game away from the title.

"This was my last high school match, and ... I haven't lost at the end of a season yet, and I was not about to start now," said Smith, who finished with five aces, five block assists and nine digs in addition to her offense.

"We've been here before. We know how to play volleyball. We just had to up our level of play."

The Wolves took their game up a level once again late in Game 4 even as Lovett stayed close, trailing just 16-14 after a kill from Jenny Wilkes.

Armstrong answered the kill, and Smith and Anna Keappler each added a kill and a block assist as Wesleyan went on a 9-5 run.

Armstrong then sent a hard spike off the dig of a Lovett defender at match point to close out the 25-19 win and the team's fourth straight title.

"In today's age of parity in sports, to win four in a row is huge for us," Russell said.

In addition to the heroics of Armstrong and Smith, Wesleyan also got major contributions from Maggie Smith - who set up most of the offense with 35 assists and added nine digs - Haley Collins (three kills, eight digs), Keappler (seven kills, three block assists), Brittany Price (six digs, three aces) and Brooke Atkinson (seven digs).