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GAC falls just short in title quest

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Greater Atlanta Christian's Emma Taylor and the rest of the Spartans walk off the court following their loss to Eagles Landing Christian Academy in the Class AA/A state volleyball championship on Saturday at Marietta High School.

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Greater Atlanta Christian's Emma Taylor and the rest of the Spartans walk off the court following their loss to Eagles Landing Christian Academy in the Class AA/A state volleyball championship on Saturday at Marietta High School.

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Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Greater Atlanta Christian's Janaya Simmons hits the ball during the Spartans' match against Eagles Landing Christian Academy on Saturday in the Class A/AA state championship game.

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Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Greater Atlanta Christian's Rachel Waldrop, left, and Ali Cox, right, attempt to block a shot by Eagles Landing Christian Academy in the Class A/AA state volleyball championship on Saturday.

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MARIETTA -- The stunned Greater Atlanta Christian volleyball players could only watch as Eagle's Landing Christian received its Class AA/A state championship trophy.

Many of the Spartans had tears welling in their eyes or streaming down their cheeks. Who could blame them for crying?

Top-seeded GAC had every reason to expect that its first trip to the title game would end as they had dreamed. Instead, it was ELCA that won its first championship in a thrilling five-game marathon Saturday before a large crowd at the Marietta Garden.

"This is so surreal," ELCA standout Mara Green said after he team's 25-18, 20-25, 25-23, 25-27, 15-13 victory. "I can't believe that we did it. This has been a miracle year."

GAC (41-5) came in on a 16-match winning streak in which it hadn't lost a single set. In fact, the Spartans had recorded sweeps in all of their victories this season.

Meanwhile, No. 3 seed ELCA (37-7) had needed four tough sets to beat Wesleyan in the state quarterfinals and had been used to tight matches all season.

"I know that most people didn't, but I thought this match was 50/50," Chargers coach Jim Barlow said. "I thought that we'd win if we could keep it close. I thought it was to our advantage that we were used to being in tough matches."

The state championship match, of course, couldn't have been any closer.

Having alternated wins, it all came down to a fifth and deciding set, played to 15 rather than 25. GAC led 13-9 and appeared to be in good shape. Then Green, who will go on to play for Florida State, took over.

Green's second-straight kill tied things at 13 and then her block set up match point. When GAC was charged with a double hit after an ELCA serve, the Chargers had their title and the celebration on that side of the court was on.

GAC, which had beaten ELCA at the start of the season, was left to wonder what happened after giving up six straight points with the match on the line.

Things, though, hadn't gone right for the Spartans from the beginning, when they fell behind 18-5 in the first game. From then on, it was an uphill battle.

"We were pressing, which we don't normally do," GAC coach Kristy Shelton said. "The girls became more focus on there team than what we had done all year. We've always played great defense and had great passing. But our passing wasn't sharp. That's what hurt us. We could do what we normally do because of that."

After the loss in the first game, GAC came back to lead most of the way while winning the second. Then the next two were classics, with the lead going back and fourth.

Green had a spike and then a block as ELCA broke a tie at 23 to win the third game. But GAC scored the last two points of the fourth game to break a tie at 25.

The decisive final set ended at 15 points. ELCA, with its late flurry, got there first.

It was still a memorable year for GAC, which had never advanced beyond the semifinals previously.

"It was an incredible season and I'm not just talking about this team's talent," Shelton said. "They let the spirit guide them. They kept their focus on God. He gives us what we need when we need it. He gave us a hard thing we hadn't wanted today and now we have to deal with it."

Dede Bohannon, who transferred from Newman to join the Spartans' seven returning seniors, had 25 kills against ELCA and Janaya Simmons added 14. Catherine Chason contributed 25 digs and Rachel Waldrop had 49 assists.

Green led ELCA with 29 kills and four blocks. Rachel Tolleson added 13 kills and Kodi Patterson had 39 assists.

With GAC's near miss, just one school from Gwinnett County has been able to claim a state volleyball championship. Wesleyan won four straight from 2004 through 2007, then again in 2009.

Blessed Trinity won the championship last year, but the No. 2-seeded Titans were beaten by ELCA in the semifinals this year.

The Chargers made it to the Elite Eight each of the previous two seasons, but there season had ended right there. This time, they got to hold the championship trophy for the first time. GAC had hoped it would be the one doing the celebrating.