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Pride on the line for Wesleyan

With five state championships and titles in the three previous Gwinnett County championships, Wesleyan has been the gold standard among the county’s high school volleyball programs.

The Wolves will once again be the team to beat as this year’s county tournament gets under way with pool play at five different sites today, leading to bracket play Saturday at Suwanee Sports Academy.

VOLLEYBALL

What: Gwinnett County Volleyball Championships

When: Pool play today at 4:30, 5:45 and 7 p.m.; bracket play Saturday

Where: Today at Mill Creek, Brookwood, North Gwinnett, Hebron Christian and Buford; Saturday at Suwanee Sports Academy

Admission: $5

Pools

Pool A (at Mill Creek): Mill Creek, Providence Christian, Archer, Meadowcreek

Pool B (at Brookwood): Brookwood, Norcross, Central Gwinnett, South Gwinnett

Pool C (at North Gwinnett): North Gwinnett, GAC, Dacula, Berkmar

Pool D (at Hebron Christian): Hebron Christian, Parkview, Collins Hill, Mountain View

Pool E (at Buford): Buford, Wesleyan, Grayson, Duluth

As has been the case the last three years, the tournament takes on a different significance for Wesleyan (18-13, ranked No. 6 in Class AA/A) than the rest of the teams.

“There is a pride issue,” Wolves coach Ted Russell said. “Any time you’re a defending champion, it’s of high importance because you don’t want to give away what you have.”

And Wesleyan has another strong team, backed by battled-tested veterans like outside hitter Grace Leah Baughn and setter Maggie Smith.

But there are plenty of teams in position to try to take the crown away from the Wolves this year — perhaps more than in the previous two tournaments.

“We were finishing up area play (Tuesday) night and one of the officials said North Gwinnett was playing really well right now, that the were one of the best public school teams he’d ever seen from Gwinnett County,” Russell said. “Hebron (Christian) has emerged as a serious contender, and Buford is a team that’s kind of flown under the radar. And, of course, you can never leave (coach) Kristy (Shelton) and GAC out.”

Area 7-AAAAA has provided some of the top contenders the past two years, such as Norcross and Mill Creek.

The same should be the case again this year, with North (30-2, ranked No. 4 in Class AAAAA) on a roll behind the leadership of juniors Kelsea Knudsen and Alex Panks and seniors Virginia Hannah and Annie Wheeler.

“We definitely would like to win the Gwinnett County tournament,” Bulldogs coach Vanessa Henry said. “But it’s also a stepping stone to our area tournament. I feel like the timing of the tournament is perfect for us to raise our play to another level. And with the teams we’re going to meet in the tournament, we’re hoping to do that.”

That is also the goal of other contenders like Hebron (27-4, No. 7 in Class AA/A and led by outside hitter Courtney Bishop), GAC (15-10, No. 8 in Class AA/A and led by setter Catherine Chason) and Buford (28-5 and led by libero Elizabeth Darden).

However, challenging Wesleyan takes on a different significance, since all three could run into the Wolves deep in the postseason.

And the tournament should serve as a serious measuring stick for all three.

“We’d really like to see Wesleyan this weekend because we faced them in the Elite Eight last year and struggled mightily,” Hebron coach Judy Conner said. “We want to see how close we are to our goals.”