Having reached the state finals for a fifth consecutive season, the Lady Raiders are way beyond that. All it took were a couple of strategic adjustments, and they were right back to form.
Walton seized control during a seven-point service run in the fourth set, held on to beat Chattahoochee 27-25, 25-21, 19-25, 25-19 at Marietta High School and won its fourth consecutive title.
In all, the Lady Raiders’ long-powerful volleyball program has nine state championships, adding to the streak of five in a row from 1998 through 2002. Only Woodward Academy (10) has won more state titles since volleyball became a sanctioned sport in 1993.
Senior Jessica Sloan, who was on all four of Walton’s state championship rosters, finished with 19 kills. Lindsay Seagraves added 17, Brooke Landon finished with 14 and Celeste Fitzgerald dished out 46 assists
“This is amazing. I am so thrilled for the seniors,” said Sloan, who has committed to play next year at the University of Dayton. “We worked so hard.”
The Lady Raiders (44-6) grinded out an extended first set on a Sloan kill, pulled away late in the second set and was in the driver’s seat of the third with a 14-10 lead.
But that’s when errors started coming in bunches for Walton.
After Chattahoochee (48-10) tied it at 15-all, the Lady Raiders were called for a net violation, a hitting error, a passing error, another hitting error and, finally, a double-hit to fall behind 20-15.
Walton never fully recovered and was later called for being out of rotation to give Chattahoochee set point. The Lady Cougars won it when Sloan’s kill attempt hit the antenna.
“We got into a rut, but we had to pick it up as a team,” Fitzgerald said. “During the timeouts, we said that we needed to focus, and that this was the last game for our seniors.”
Chattahoochee’s Miami-bound setter, Haley Templeton, also gave Walton fits during the third set by either setting the ball off a serve-receive pass from the back row or going on the attack. She led the Lady Cougars with 16 kills and added 19 assists.
Templeton continued giving Walton fits early in the fourth set when she won two points by dumping the ball over Walton’s hitters and to the back row, where the Lady Raiders weren’t covering.
After Walton fell behind 5-2 in the fourth set on a combined block by Chattahoochee’s Kristen Henninger and Lexi Kingree, Landon hit a kill off the first pass for a side out, and the Lady Raiders took over from there.
Freshman Dalaney Hans took serve and Walton’s seven-point surge began on an ace, followed by a free-ball kill by Sloan that was set up by Hans’ serve. Hans’ run continued with Sloan and Landon trading kills, before ending with Walton holding a 10-5 lead that would eventually grow.
“In the fourth set, we wanted to serve aggressively to their weaker passers and keep the ball away from (libero) Claudia (Coco),” Walton coach Suzanne Fitzgerald said. “We had to do a better job with matchups. It was all about moving the ball around and playing keep-away.”
Once Walton started serving more aggressively, Templeton’s ability to attack off the back-row pass was limited.
Walton continued pulling away, earning match point on a Templeton hitting error.
But Chattahoochee didn’t go away easy. Templeton saved the first match point on a kill, and Seagraves and Landon committed back-to-back hitting errors, forcing Walton’s coach to call timeout.
A lengthy rally ensued, with both teams playing stellar defense, and it finally ended with Seagraves knocking down a Celeste Fitzgerald assist.
“I was shaking at first, but I knew I had to do it for the team.” Seagraves said. “I had to use all my power to put that ball down.”