Walton and Harrison have enough players back this season to potentially face each other for the third straight year in the state’s highest classification. Their 2011 final came down to an emotional fifth set that ended 15-9 in Walton’s favor. In last year’s final, the Lady Raiders ran away in the fourth following three tightly played sets.
Walker, meanwhile, made its first trip to the state finals last season, losing a four-setter to Landmark Christian in Class A.
The Lady Wolverines’ six returning players are eager to take the sting away from last fall, and it’s been the focal point of discussion since they began summer camp. Walker seemed to be on the wrong end of controversial calls in the first two sets of the 2012 final, when its setters were repeatedly whistled for touching the ball twice — an issue they never had during the season.
“They didn’t like how it felt to lose that last one, and they don’t want that happening again,” Walker coach Karen Arndt said, “so (winning state) is a goal.”
All three teams will find out how strong they really are Saturday at Holy Innocents’, when they participate in a play date that consists of last year’s champions and runners-up in the six classifications.
Walker will get its rematch with Landmark at 12:30 p.m., as will Harrison with Walton when they play each other at 1:30 p.m.
Walton, which is in the driver’s seat toward winning a fourth straight state title, has a strong nucleus of returning players as well and is comprised mostly of upperclassmen who have been in coach Suzanne Fitzgerald’s system for years.
Senior outside hitters Jessica Sloan and Brooke Landon, middle hitter Leah Jackson and libero Katie Schwartz will lead the way for the Lady Raiders. Walton also has a talented group of juniors in outside hitters Lindsay Seagraves, libero Ashley Dean, rightside hitter Ashley Miller and middle hitter Leo Hausman it can go to.
“We have a new way of running our defense, and the girls are responding well,” Fitzgerald said. “The seniors have been playing together for so long, and that’s allowed me to implement new things more quickly.”
After falling to Walton twice, Harrison will find out if it has enough weapons and defense to dethrone the Lady Raiders, should the two teams play for a championship again.
Coach Clay Taylor has all the confidence in his Lady Hoyas, even with setter Kelly Scott, the 2012 Marietta Daily Journal/Cobb County Volleyball Player of the Year, now playing at Georgia Southern.
“The team is just as strong, if not stronger, I think,” Taylor said.
Senior outside hitter Taylor Haskins is returning, along with junior outside hitter Caroline Ostman and libero Kodi Smith. Senior Andie Karmel will also be a force in the middle following a strong junior campaign.
Right now, Harrison’s still looking for a new setter, with freshman Alanna McInnis the leading candidate.
“We’re not set completely, but we’ll see what happens,” Taylor said. “We want to try to make everyone earn their spots and get better as we go.”
Walker lost a clutch player in outside hitter Paige Warner who may be a difficult player to replace, but younger sister Brooke Warner, a junior, returns to play the dual role of setter and middle hitter.
The Lady Wolverines also expect to be sound on the back row, with senior libero Anna Chocallo running things.
Junior outside hitter Sasha Fazylov is also returning to the Lady Wolverines, but she is still recovering from an offseason knee injury and her status is still uncertain. However, Arndt said two freshmen — outside hitter Jordan Tasman and defensive specialist Holland Martin — have shown great promise.
“If we can strengthen up defensively, we can hang in there with anybody and make teams scramble,” Arndt said. “But we need a healthy Sasha.”