Having won each of the first two Gwinnett County Volleyball Tournaments, Wesleyan would seem to be a natural favorite when the third edition of the tournament gets under way at five county high schools today.
But the Wolves (18-15 and No. 2 in the most recent Class AA/A state rankings) may have their toughest challenge to date in front of them if they are to pull off the three-peat.
"Truthfully, we were really fortunate to win it last year," Wesleyan coach Ted Russell said of his team's 26-24, 25-23 win over Norcross in last year's finals. "We were fortunate to beat Norcross in the finals, and we almost lost to GAC in the semifinals."
The Blue Devils (8-10) and Spartans (16-5, No. 6 in Class AA/A) are just two of a host of challengers who stand a chance of wresting the championship trophy away from the Wolves for the first time.
Perhaps the most prominent of these challengers is Mill Creek.
The Hawks have started the season with a school-record 22 straight wins and have risen to No. 4 in the most recent Class AAAAA state rankings behind strong hitters like Clemson-commitment Moneshia Simmons and Lauren Rhodes, along with senior setter Ashley Jackson.
Among those victories have been wins over ranked teams like GAC, defending Class AAAAA state champion Northview, Whitewater, Sprayberry and Johns Creek, and they've only been taken to three games in three of those matches - twice by Area 7-AAAAA rival Collins Hill.
With the county title enough of an incentive for them, they also have the current undefeated streak to defend, as well.
But coach Analisa Wendt is confident the streak will not prove to be a distraction for her team.
"Volleyball is such a mental sport, so it will be a part of it because every team we play will be trying to break it," Wendt said. "It will be a good test of our emotional level and mentality level. We haven't seen many teams in the (county) yet, so we're excited about this weekend."
Joining Mill Creek, GAC and Norcross among the top title contenders are North Gwinnett (19-10), Collins Hill (17-11) and Parkview (14-9), as well as AA/A stalwarts Providence (13-6) and Hebron (17-10).
Still, until someone knocks off Wesleyan, the Wolves remain the team to beat.
And with several injured players beginning to heal - including preseason Super Six outside hitter Haley Collins, who is expected to see her first action of the season after recovering from a leg injury - Russell is hopeful his team can use this tournament to gain momentum for the rest of the Area 7-AA/A schedule, and more importantly, the postseason.
"Anything that is a tournament format where if you lose once Saturday, you're out, it kind of simulates what the end of the season is like," Russell said. "You'll find out a lot about your kids and how they react to that."
What: Gwinnett County Championships
When: Today, Saturday
Where: Five high schools today; Suwanee Sports Academy on Saturday
Defending champion: Wesleyan