Wesleyan volleyball gets huge challenge

Wesleyan’s volleyball team survived its most difficult first-round pairing Saturday, earning this reward — its toughest-ever second-round match.

The defending Class AA/A state champion Wolves swept Buford (39-10) in the tourney opener and now must travel to second-ranked Athens Academy (47-3) tonight in an early matchup of state title contenders. Fourth-ranked Wesleyan (31-18) split matches with Athens Academy last season but lost to the Spartans back in August.

“They’re very good,” Wesleyan coach Ted Russell said of tonight’s foe. “It will be a big challenge for us. ... For our classification, no doubt it’s the toughest (second-round pairing). It’s a big matchup for the round of 16.”

Wesleyan is accustomed to deep playoff runs under Russell, winning state titles from 2004 to 2007 in addition to last year’s championship. Athens Academy lost in last year’s semifinals to Westminster, but returned a senior-laden team in search of a better finish this season.

The Spartans have been great all season, losing only eight games total. Two of their three match losses were to out-of-state teams, with their lone setback against Georgia competition to No. 1 Blessed Trinity.

Wesleyan senior Grace Leah Baughn and her teammates also have fared well, winning the Gwinnett County title once again earlier this season by outlasting the county’s top AAAAA teams. They will need another big effort today to avenge the earlier loss to Athens Academy.

“For me, it’s easy motivation,” Russell said. “If we had beat them the last time, you risk the kids being overconfident, but maybe not against Athens Academy, they’re too good to be overconfident with. But having lost to them already, this team responds to that.”

Seventh-ranked Greater Atlanta Christian (28-12) also is alive in the AA/A bracket, hosting St. Vincent’s this afternoon.

Today’s second-round slate also features a busy day for Gwinnett’s AAAAA programs, including three games featuring local teams head-to-head.

Shiloh hosts Collins Hill, North Gwinnett hosts Grayson and Brookwood hosts Mill Creek, guaranteeing the county will send three teams to the Elite Eight round on Saturday. That number could grow to four if Parkview can win a road match today against East Coweta.