Yet the Lady Raiders had to compete for a fourth straight championship with a smaller team.
Walton’s two 6-foot-1 middle blockers from the 2012 season — Anouska Best and Caroline Goerke — did not return, and the Lady Raiders had to make due with just four players taller than 5-9.
To account for the lack of height, eighth-year coach Suzanne Fitzgerald made some offensive adjustments that required more passing and aggressive serving.
By the second half of the season, Walton was efficient at both, and that led to 22 consecutive wins to end the season, capped by a four-set win over Chattahoochee in the Class AAAAAA state championship.
For her efforts, Fitzgerald is the 2013 Marietta Daily Journal/Cobb County Volleyball Coach of the Year.
“We needed to work on our passing right out of the gate,” Fitzgerald said. “We didn’t pass as well as we should have and going into the season. Along with working on our passing, we worked on our serving and I am really, really pleased how we ended up in those two areas at the end of the season.”
Fitzgerald and the Lady Raiders started clicking at a Tournament in Orlando, Fla., in late September, winning five of six matches. The momentum carried over into Area 4AAAAAA play, where Walton handled all of its competition in straight sets.
Then Walton ran into an unexpected speed bump in the area championship.
After previously falling to the Lady Raiders in straight sets three times, the Lady Hornets didn’t have plans to go down quickly or quietly a fourth time.
Roswell gave Walton fits that it didn’t expect, and the Lady Raiders found themselves trailing two sets to one. Walton wasn’t passing well, and it wasn’t until a switch to a 6-2 alignment after the third set that helped the Lady Raiders mount a comeback and eventually prevail in five sets.
Although Walton won, it couldn’t overlook the little things that went wrong. In the end, Fitzgerald referred to the marathon win as a “necessary scare.”
“We all, including myself, got complacent about our business, even down to warmups. Not being so focused as we needed to be,” Fitzgerald said. “I went back and thought about it emotionally, and we had a difficult time when something went wrong. We had a difficult time recovering from that error.”
As a way to fix their mental deficiencies and move forward, Fitzgerald encouraged her players to cheer for one another, even when they would make a careless mistake.
As a result, Walton came out as a different team in the Class AAAAAA state tournament. After cruising through the first three rounds, the Lady Raiders ran into a semifinal-round match with South Forsyth, which was coming off an emotional five-set win over Harrison in the quarterfinals.
Fitzgerald had the Lady Raiders ready and the result was a 25-15, 25-15, 25-9 win at home against one of the better blocking teams in the state. Walton’s hitting, passing, blocking, serving and serve-receive were on point.
“We came in with a lot of respect with that team,” Fitzgerald said. “We knew blocking was going to be tough and knew we had to work together to make (the victory) happen.”