Wesleyan faces many challengers for county volleyball crown

North Gwinnett's Kristina Stinson (4) attempts a kill as Mill Creek's Emily Wylie (15) tries to block it during the Bulldogs' straight set victory over the Hawks on Wednesday night in Suwanee.

North Gwinnett's Kristina Stinson (4) attempts a kill as Mill Creek's Emily Wylie (15) tries to block it during the Bulldogs' straight set victory over the Hawks on Wednesday night in Suwanee.

For the four years since the Gwinnett County Volleyball Championships were first established, Wesleyan has dominated, and each year, the Wolves have managed to fend off the latest challenger to their county crown.

But as the county tournament enters its fifth year with pool play beginning this afternoon at five different sites, Wesleyan's title reign may be in the most jeopardy it's ever been in.

Not that the Wolves (21-9 and ranked No. 5 in the state in Class AA/A) won't be a formidable contender to once again lift the championship trophy when it is awarded following Saturday's finals at Suwanee Sports Academy.

It's just that the number of legitimate challengers has skyrocketed this season.

"It's hard to look past North Gwinnett and GAC as the favorites," Wesleyan coach Ted Russell said. "Brookwood and Peachtree Ridge are both having a good year. Mill Creek is looking strong. It's good for Gwinnett to have so many teams in the mix.

"You hope as a coach the kids are inspired (by the challenge). For me, it does. We're hoping this week kind of helps propel us where we want to go."

That's something the other of the numerous title contenders are hoping for, as well.

As Russell mentioned, Greater Atlanta Christian (25-4 and No. 2 in Class AA/A) and North Gwinnett (35-6 and No. 4 in Class AAAAA) appear to be the top challengers for Wesleyan, with Brookwood (27-7, No. 7 in AAAAA), Mill Creek (24-10, No. 9 in AAAAA) and Peachtree Ridge also trying to stake their claim to the county title.

All of those teams come in with plenty of momentum from recent competition.

GAC had a strong showing at the Lovett Block Party play day last weekend, beating state-ranked teams Lassiter, Northgate and Starr's Mill before falling in a tough, three-game match to Pope, Class AAAA's top-ranked team.

And led by a strong senior class that includes outside hitter DeDe Bohannon, libero Catherine Chason and setter Rachel Waldrop, the Spartans appear poised for a breakthrough county tournament.

"All of them have really stepped up," GAC coach Kristy Shelton said of her seniors. "You knew they were going to be special, but you add DeDe, she's someone on a level you don't get to coach very often.

"This is one of the goals the girls set (at the beginning of the season), and one of the steps toward what we're looking for down the road."

Similarly, North comes in red hot after winning the Collins Hill Classic, and with plenty of seasoned talent that includes Collins Hill Classic MVP Kristina Stinson and fellow senior Alex Panks.

And Bulldogs coach Vanessa Henry is hoping that momentum carries over into this weekend.

"What you'd like to see is the team putting everything together that it's been working on," Henry said. "I feel like this is the year (anyone can win). Peachtree Ridge and Mill Creek are two sleeper teams a lot of people are kind of overlooking. Everyone can beat anyone at any point."

Still, Wesleyan remains the team to beat until someone actually accomplishes that feat.

But Russell points out that he brings in one of the youngest packs of Wolves he's ever brought to a county tournament, with freshmen Lauren Frerking and Nikki McDonald and sophomore Ashley Moody rotating in the middle.

So, he will rely on veterans like Callie Bivings, Alana Broe and Jennifer Miller to provide leadership to the youngsters who will try to defend the title.

"At this point, we're taking it one step at a time," Russell said.

"We're still looking for that signature win this season."