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Contenders get clean slate as volleyball playoffs begin

As with every sport, the same cliches come from high school volleyball coaches at the beginning of the postseason.

“At this point, everyone’s record is 0-0,” North Gwinnett’s Vanessa Henry said, repeating one of those frequently quoted lines.

STATE VOLLEYBALL

First-round matchups

Thursday’s games

Class AAAAA

5 p.m. — Dacula at Shiloh

5:30 p.m. — Collins Hill at Newnan

5:30 p.m. — Westlake at North Gwinnett

6 p.m. — Newton at Grayson

6 p.m. — Peachtree Ridge at East Coweta

6 p.m. — Stephenson at Brookwood

6:15 p.m. — Campbell at Mill Creek

6:30 p.m. — Parkview at Luella

Saturday’s games

Class AA/A

10 a.m. — Buford at Wesleyan

10 a.m. — Providence at Blessed Trinity

10:30 a.m. — Pinecrest at GAC

4 p.m. — Holy Innocents’ at Hebron

But as the state sectional playoff begins for Class AAAAA today and the combined Class AA/A on Saturday, those cliches actually apply to most of Gwinnett County’s 14 qualifiers.

They apply to perhaps no one more than Wesleyan, the defending Class AA/A state champion and title winner five out of the last six years.

Despite a veteran lineup that includes seniors Maggie Smith and Grace Leah Baughn, the Wolves (30-18) will have their hands full defending their latest title. And not just because they enter the postseason not carrying an area championship with them for the first time in the 10 years coach Ted Russell has been associated with the program.

If they are going to win another championship, they will have to earn it, beginning Saturday morning when they welcome Buford (39-9) to Yancey Gymnasium for a first-round match.

“If you look at the draw, there are seven or eight, or maybe even nine, teams that if they get hot, can win it all,” Russell said. “Blessed Trinity, Athens Academy and Eagle’s Landing Christian are probably the class (of AA/A) right now, but everybody else is not far behind.

“By far (Buford) is the hardest first-round match we’ve had in the 10 years I’ve been here. ... We have the offense to play with anybody in the state, but if our passing is struggling, we’ll have to pick it up with defense and blocking. But all we’re talking about right now is Buford. Nobody else exists to us if we don’t beat Buford.”

Indeed, Buford, along with Area 4-AA/A rivals GAC (27-13), Hebron (35-7) and Providence (22-15) all have as good a chance at a deep run as Wesleyan.

Likewise, several county teams are capable of making a run in Class AAAAA, with North (43-3), Brookwood (33-15) and Shiloh (18-17) all entering play fresh off area titles.

And like Russell, North’s Henry sees fundamentals and focus being the main keys if the Bulldogs — led by juniors Alex Panks and Kelsea Knudsen, senior Virginia Hannah and sophomore Kristina Stinson — are to make an already historic season even more special.

“The final four has been our goal from the beginning of the season,” said Henry, whose team plays host to Westlake in a first-round match this afternoon. “When you’re playing an opponent for the first time, you have to go in and play hard and take each match one at a time.

“Our passing game has to stay good and we have to serve tough. That’s what’s kept us in matches even when our hitting has been off. As long as we’re passing and serving, we always have a chance.”