MARIETTA - After a year away from the Class AA/A state volleyball championship match, the Wesleyan Wolves were back where they felt they belonged.
They aimed to stay there. And at the same time, gain a measure of payback against the team that ended their bid for a fifth straight title a year ago.
Thanks in no small part to some of its more experienced players, top-ranked Wesleyan did just that, claiming its fifth title in six years with a 25-17, 25-21, 26-24 sweep of No. 4 Westminster on Saturday at Marietta Garden.
"This team came out as soon as last season was over and said, 'We're going to do it differently this year. We're going to be back and win,'" head coach Ted Russell said after the Wolves finished their season at 34-17.
"This is the best team chemistry of any team I've ever coached. ... It's such a fun group, and they always have each other's backs."
That was true Saturday, with senior middle hitter Anna Keappler and junior setter Maggie Smith having the Wolves' backs when it was needed the most.
Each came up with momentum-changing plays at the most opportune times after Wesleyan cruised to a 25-17 victory in the match's first game.
It looked like the Wolves might continue to coast in the second game after taking an 18-9 lead following a Westminster attacking error.
However, the Wildcats (29-13) rallied by taking 10 of the next 12 points - including two kills and an ace by Kealy Hartman and five Wesleyan errors - to pull to within 20-19.
That's when Smith called on her court savvy. Instead of setting up a hitter for one of her 36 assists on the day on the next point, she tapped the ball over the net to an open spot in the unsuspecting Westminster defense.
"My coaches always team me, 'Maggie, tip more,'" said Smith, who also contributed seven digs defensively. "It's worked all season, so I figured, maybe it will change things up a little."
The play allowed the Wolves to regain momentum, and Grace Leah Baughn's kill at 22-21 started a run of three straight points, which she ended with her slam at the net to give Wesleyan's a 2-0 lead in the match.
Keappler's biggest moment of the day came after Westminster looked like it would extend the match by taking a 24-21 lead in Game 3 with three game points to play with.
But the 6-foot senior took over. She slammed down a kill and then followed up another well-placed tip by Smith with three huge kills off the Wildcat defense to finish off a run of five straight points and put the exclamation point on the Wolves' title.
"I just really wanted the ball to go down really bad," said Keappler, who led Wesleyan with 16 kills and added 24 digs. "We really didn't want to play a fourth game."
The Wolves didn't have to, thanks to Keappler and Smith, and plenty of other heroes.
Baughn had a strong offensive effort with 11 kills, while senior Haley Collins had an outstanding all-around match with a team-high 38 digs and four assists.
Also making big contributions for Wesleyan were Callie Bivings (four kills, two service aces, two digs and two block assists), Ashley Gentry (three aces), Alana Broe (six kills, three block assists), Alex Middleton (four kills, three digs) and Ansley Maughon (seven digs).
Locals help Woodward Academy to title
The War Eagles (44-9) claimed their seventh state title in the last nine years by downing the Blue Devils, aided by the contributions of Gwinnett residents Molly Miller (two kills) and Kelly Hall (7 digs).