But the Lady Raiders had to address some things if they were going to continue their streak of state championship wins. Kelly Murphy (Michigan), Katherine Plessy (Florida State sand volleyball) and Morgan Smith graduated last spring, which meant they had to replace their most experienced outside hitter, middle blocker and libero.
The other key players from Walton’s 2011 state championship team were returning, but having to replace those three was a different challenge for seventh-year coach Suzanne Fitzgerald.
She ended up making ends meet and Walton went on another tear this season en route to its third straight state championship in the state’s highest classification with a four-set win over Harrison.
For her efforts, Fitzgerald was named Marietta Daily Journal/Cobb County Volleyball Coach of the Year.
“Our season is successful, not because we won a state title,” Fitzgerald said on the 2012 campaign. “Our season was successful because we committed wholeheartedly to each other and became the best team we could possibly be in the time given to play together.”
The Lady Raiders finished with a 34-7 overall record and was undefeated in Area 4AAAAAA. Their only in-state losses occurred in August against Whitewater in the season opener and Blessed Trinity a week later. Obviously, at that time, the Lady Raiders were still in the experimental stage.
Having to replace Murphy, Plessy and Smith led to Walton going through team-building exercises, unselfish play and shoring up certain weaknesses during the preseason. The Lady Raiders also tireless hours on serve-receive drills, an area that’s the starting point of running an effective offense on the court.
“We had to exercise selfish plays and endure countless hours of training that was always the players’ favorites,” Fitzgerald said. “But we adjusted well and are better for it.”
Things started coming together early on. Chloe Cook and Jessica Sloan handled most of the outside hitting duties throughout the season while senior Anouska Best and Leah Jackson served as the primary middles.
Another area Fitzgerald had to tackle was defining the roles of last year’s setter Tori Ferguson and her daughter, Celeste Fitzgerald, who was a promising freshman setter.
Walton ran a two-setter offense early in the year and got both setters involved before switching to a 5-1 with just one setter. And she made the decision to make her daughter the starting setter and move Ferguson to libero.
It turned out to be the right choice.
In the state championship game against Harrison, Celeste Fitzgerald dished out 51 assists and Ferguson had 10 digs on back row along with two aces.
“Ultimately, we needed those girls on the floor all six rotations for a variety of reasons,” Fitzgerald said. “We needed Tori’s leadership and intensity in the backcourt and we needed Celeste’s ability to make solid decisions under pressure as our setter.”
Walton played its best volleyball of the season in the Berkeley Prep Tournament in Tampa, Fla. at the end of September when the Lady Raiders took the top-ranked national team Bishop Moore to three sets before falling.
Walton only lost twice during the remainder of the season, both coming to out-of-state teams.
The Lady Raiders won all their postseason matches in straight sets before needing four to oust Harrison. Walton’s more difficult wins, Fitzgerald said, came against the stronger setters. Chattahoochee’s Haley Templeton gave Walton fits in its quarterfinal win as did Kelly Scott of Harrison in the final.