NORCROSS - Coming into the Class AA/A volleyball semifinals with 23 wins in its past 24 matches, Greater Atlanta Christian at least had hope.
Would this be the time the Spartans finally beat Wesleyan?
If the No. 1-ranked Wolves weren't on their own special quest for redemption, it might have happened. But as it was, GAC never had a chance.
Wesleyan recorded 11 aces in the first game and swept the Spartans 25-15, 25-14, 25-14 on Saturday at the Wolves' Yancey Gymnasium to make it back to the state championship match after having its string of titles end at four last year.
Wesleyan (33-7) will face Westminster (29-12) next Saturday at Marietta in an 11 a.m. match. It was the eventual champion Wildcats who ousted Wesleyan in the quarterfinals last year and the Wolves haven't forgotten the heartbreak of that defeat.
"This is as focused a team as I've ever had," Wesleyan coach Ted Russell said. "They're really hungry. They understand now that winning a state championship isn't automatic. You have to work hard for it. This team has really come together and it's on a mission."
GAC (31-7) will certainly vouch for that. The Wolves took the Spartans out of their game early and never let them get back into the match.
In four rounds of the state tournament, Wesleyan is yet to drop a single game.
"Wesleyan played incredibly well," GAC coach Kristy Shelton said. "Their start took away our confidence."
The Wolves were able to neutralize GAC star Amanda Komisarow, not an easy thing to do.
"If you can get easy points with your serve it obviously helps when you get to this stage of the season against good teams," Russell said. "I think our serving set the tone for the match. It was huge for us."
So was the return of Grace Leah Baughn, who had been sidelined for a couple of weeks with a sore back. For one of the rare times this season, the Wolves had their regular lineup intact.
"It was great to have her playing," Russell said. "But one of the best things about this team is its versatility. When we've had a player out, another player has always stepped in."
Anna Keappler had a double-double for the Wolves with 14 kills and 13 digs. Maggie Smith added six aces and 30 assists, while Haley Collins had 27 digs.
Baughn had eight kills in her return, along with a solo block and a share of two others. Wilson Sprinkle added three aces, two kills and 11 digs, while Callie Bivings had three kills and was in on four blocks.
"After losing in the Elite Eight last year, we really wanted to get back to the state championship," said Keappler, one of three Wolves seniors. "That's been our goal all year."
Komisarow had nine kills and 11 digs in her final game for GAC. She is the Spartans' season and career record holder in kills.
After the match, the players and coaches broke into small groups and prayed together. Friends as well as rivals, they had taken part in an Open Hand service project during the summer and bonded from it.
"Everyone got to be very close," Shelton said. "We all prayed for each other. I wish we could have met in the finals so we each would have made it that far."
GAC, ranked No. 6 at the end of the regular season, had a much harder trip to the semifinals than Wesleyan on Saturday.
Wesleyan, the Area 7 champion, never trailed while sweeping Hebron Christian 25-3, 25-8, 25-4 in the quarterfinals. The match took just 48 minutes, with the Wolves scoring the first 18 points in the third game.
The Wolves had 21 aces, seven by Collins. Smith recorded 19 assists, while Keappler registered eight kills and had 11 digs, the same number as Collins.
Hebron (27-16) was the surprise team in the Elite Eight. The Lions, the No. 2 seed from Area 4 behind GAC, had no seniors and were 6-17 the previous season.
GAC had to go four games to defeat No. 5-ranked Eagle's Landing Christian 25-15, 25-22, 19-25, 25-21. ELCA, the Area 3 champion, finished 42-13.
Komisarow had 27 kills, dominating at the net. Sophomore setter Catherine Chason had 39 assists for GAC, while Courtney Parker recorded 23 digs.
"We spent everything we had against Eagle's Landing," Shelton said. "It was going to take the best we had to stay with Wesleyan and we had already used up our best."