The Lady Raiders clinched their ninth state championship in the last 10 seasons with a 3-2 win over Peachtree Ridge on Saturday in the Class AAAAAA state championship at Clayton County International Park.
Walton returned to Jonesboro this year after its string of eight consecutive state championships and 158 straight wins was snapped by Roswell in last year’s state quarterfinals.
The Lady Raiders (18-0) bounced right back and played their way to the state championship with an undefeated record. Despite having a starting lineup of entirely new faces since they last won state two years ago, they played like they’ve been here many times before.
“I’m so proud of these girls and on how well they all played,” said second-year Walton coach Christy Page, who also experienced a state championship for the first time as a head coach. “They all played their best match of the season.”
Peachtree Ridge has been Walton’s toughest adversary over the last four years, but the Lady Raiders have always found a way to emerge victorious.
Saturday was no different.
Johanna Keeline had to overcome adversity against Ali Mills at No. 3 singles before clinching both the match and the championship with a 6-0, 7-5 win.
Mills threatened to send the match into a third set after Keeline built a cozy 6-0, 3-0 lead.
“Johanna is one of the most mentally strong people on the team,” Page said. “The nerves set in once she realized it came down to her match, but once she worked through them, she got it.”
After Suzanne Zenoni lost a tight three-set match 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 to LSU-bound Abby Owens at No. 1 singles, evening the match at 2-all, the audience shifted to Keeline’s court.
Based on the lead Keeline had, the Walton faithful weren’t expecting a long wait.
Mills had other ideas.
Once the crowd started gravitating toward the No. 3 singles court, Mills stopped making the mistakes she made in the first set and began winning the longer points by attacking Keeline’s backhand.
Mills won four straight games to take control of the set and was serving for it at 5-4.
That was when Keeline decided to make adjustments.
“I started to grind it out a little more,” Keeline said. “Coach told me if there was anything that was close to my forehand, I should just take it, and that’s what I started to do. I started changing up the points and started moving her, and she stared missing like she did more in the first set.”
While Page stated that nerves could have interfered when Mills was making her comeback attempt, Keeline said she wasn’t feeling the anxiety. It was something else.
“I think I got really excited (about winning) instead of focusing on what I had to do at the moment,” Keeline said. “I don’t really get nervous with crowds. I think it was me getting excited and wanting to get it over with.”
Another turning point for Walton came when Katie Riley and Jessica Cramer rallied to win 7-5, 6-3 over Sreeja Choppara and Laura Kelly at No. 1 doubles.
The Walton duo have played together two seasons and have yet to lose a match or a set. That was in jeopardy Saturday when they trailed 5-1 in the first set before reeling off six straight games.
Had Riley and Cramer lost that first set, things could have turned out differently.
“I was thinking about that, but I knew we could pull through,” Cramer said. “We just tried to stay positive, pump each other up and smile all the time. We also made more shots and played more consistent.”
Sophia Guldberg and Erica Bauer secured Walton’s first point of the match at No. 2 doubles with a 6-1, 6-3 victory over Mary Frances Greenwood and Riley Guise.
Peachtree Ridge’s other point came when Jena Kelley defeated Melissa Mashburn 6-2, 6-2 at No. 2 singles.