Wolves out for revenge

NORCROSS - Playing for a state championship is enough to motivate any high school volleyball player.

However, when top-ranked Wesleyan takes to the floor at Marietta Garden on Saturday to square off with No. 4 Westminster for the Class AA/A title at 11 a.m., it's safe to say each player will have a little extra incentive.

The Wolves (33-17) had their run of four straight state championships ended by the Wildcats (29-12) in last year's state quarterfinals.

The two teams met earlier this season, with Wesleyan taking a 25-11, 25-20 victory Aug. 29.

However, the stakes are considerably higher this time around.

"It was a really tough loss, the way we went out to Westminster (last year)," junior middle hitter Grace Leah Baughn said. "It was a lot of motivation for the season to come back and prove that we're capable of ... playing that high a level of volleyball.

"We had that capability last year, but we didn't meet our expectations."

Still, while avenging last year's loss would be nice, Wesleyan coach Ted Russell says his team has its eyes on the prize.

"They won't (be lacking in motivation)," Russell said. "But this group has not lacked for motivation for a while. They've been really focused. I don't think it really matters to them who they're playing. They're just excited to be playing in the (title match).

"Certainly, if you could draw it up any way, to have the opportunity to play the defending champions in the championship, it's a nice story line."

The Wolves are hoping for a different ending to the story this year, and they will try to use somewhat of a different look to make it so.

They relied a lot on their hitting a year ago, and they certainly aren't lacking in offensive firepower with the likes of Baughn and Anna Keappler, plus the setting ability of Maggie Smith.

However, Wesleyan's trademark this season has been its defense, with Baughn (314), Keappler (318) and Wilson Sprinkle (318) all having already surpassed the school single-season record for digs (302) heading into Saturday's match. It is a similar approach Westminster used to frustrate Wesleyan's hitters during their showdown last year, and one the Wolves hope to use to turn the tables on the Wildcats this year.

"There's nothing more frustrating (in volleyball) than not being able to put a ball down," Sprinkle said. "I think a lot of teams are going to struggle with that. ... It's not to take away from our offense because we've still got a good offense, but defensively, we're stronger than we've been in a while."

However, the Wolves also agree that in order to beat an opponent as strong as Westminster, they will have to have a better team chemistry this time around.

And they are confident that will be the case Saturday.

"We're a very different team this year, obviously," said Paige Lamons, one of three seniors on Wesleyan's roster this season, along with Keappler and Haley Collins.

"I think our team this year is more in tune with each other."

SideBar: State volleybal

A look at Saturday's state final matchup in the state volleyball tournament:

Class AA/A

At Marietta Garden

11 a.m. - Wesleyan vs. Westminster