Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Wesleyan Kendra Koetter (7) sets the ball for a teammate against Spencer during the second round of Class AA high school state volleyball playoffs at Wesleyan School in Norcross on Tuesday. Wesleyan swept Spencer 3 games to 0.
Hebron Christian is different from the other two remaining Gwinnett teams in the state volleyball playoffs in at least one regard --the Lions have been tested lately.
For Greater Atlanta Christian and Wesleyan, the buildup to today's state semifinals has been anticlimactic. Their last tough match was Oct. 11, when they played each other and Wesleyan won 3-1 for the Area 6-AA title.
GAC followed that up with dominating 3-0 wins over overmatched Chattooga, Kendrick and Westside in the first three rounds of state, while Wesleyan crushed Coosa and Spencer, then got a quarterfinal bye as the top remaining seed.
"It's been a long time since we played a strong, competitive match, 20 days in between," Wesleyan head coach Ted Russell said. "The first two rounds did not push us at all. We've tried in practice to simulate what we'll see (in the semifinals)."
What the three remaining teams will see in the Final Four is a serious challenge.
Hebron (38-11) is the biggest underdog of Gwinnett's semifinal teams, facing Class A's No. 1-ranked team all season, Walker (33-7). The Lions are on a hot streak, though, having won 14 of their last 15 matches.
"I would say probably yes, we are (the underdog)," Hebron head coach Judy Conner said. "While we've been to the Elite Eight a couple of times, we've never been to the Final Four so it's a new test of the waters to see where we are."
Hebron reached the semis with a tough five-setter against George Walton, winning 25-19, 25-14, 24-26, 15-25, 15-11. Conner hopes the moxie her team showed in the fifth game carries over into the next round.
Setter Anna Kathrine Wilson, who is nearing 1,000 assists, and outside hitter Bridget Oduro are key players for the Lions, but much of their hopes are pinned on undersized middle blocker Eden Murray, who is 5-foot-10.
"(Murray) is that kind of player that can take us a long way," Conner said. "If she gets on a roll, the crowd gets into it and our team gets excited. ... She's so athletic and she's able to put away so many balls."
While GAC and Wesleyan have coasted through the playoffs thus far, the competition level goes way up in this stage.
The third-seeded Spartans (29-9) take on second-seeded Westminster (27-11) in the opening semifinal at Wesleyan, which agreed to host the Class AA semis before the season. GAC lost 2-0 to Westminster back on Aug. 25 by scores of 25-22, 25-21.
But like Hebron, GAC is on a pretty good run. Its only losses in the last 15 matches are to area rival Wesleyan.
Tayler McPherson (287 kills), Emily Becker (52 aces, 423 digs), Jaimisha Patel (36 blocks), Jennie McCarty (97.5 serving percentage, 730 assists) and Emma Taylor (256 kills, 324 digs) are among the Spartans' standouts.
"I expect the semifinals with Westminster to be a great match," GAC head coach Kristy Shelton said. "I think our two teams are very evenly matched so the scores should be fairly tight if both teams are playing well. Although we're young in volleyball experience, our girls have a lot of heart. Our defense has been very solid all season. We've surpassed the team digs per match from last year's record-breaking team."
Top-seeded and host Wesleyan (35-11) plays No. 4 seed Lovett (20-13) in the nightcap. The Wolves split with Lovett during the regular season, winning 2-0 on Aug. 23 and losing 3-1 on Sept. 12.
Wesleyan has a rich volleyball tradition, but only senior Anna Davis was on the team for its last Final Four trip when she was a freshman. Natalie Connor and Emma Bivings were managers on that team.
"Only three people on our team have experienced the Final Four," Russell said. "It's been too long (between trips)."
Libero Jennifer Miller (522 digs) is one of Wesleyan's top players, while setter Kendra Koetter (848 assists), middle hitter Lauren Frerking (243 kills), right-side Hannah Hoskin (155 kills) and outside hitters Davis (205 kills) and Katie Van Laeke (235 kills) also are important players.