Back in 2015, four freshmen made their debuts in the starting lineup for Walton of Georgia, and with it the streak was born. The Raiders were coming off a loss in the second round of the Class 7A state playoffs the season prior.
It ended Walton’s run of four consecutive state championships, but it didn’t take the Raiders long to recover and rule again. By the time that freshmen class graduated, Walton produced another four state titles in a row.
But that wasn’t all.
Walton’s winning streak against opponents from Georgia stood at 99 entering the 2019 campaign. But it was about to face its biggest challenges yet to remain intact by the time it was all over.
Gone along with that successful freshmen class were 1,522 of Walton’s 1,555 total kills from 2018, or a staggering 98 percent of the Raiders’ offense. The most prominent returning players were defensive stalwarts in senior Madison Morey and junior Emery Dupes.
It didn’t matter, as last Saturday showed when Walton (32-8) topped Lassiter (33-8) in three sets (25-18, 25-17, 25-12) to deliver the program’s fifth straight state title and ninth in 10 years. The victory extended Walton’s winning streak to 120.
“I do a theme every year and usually give them one that I’m anticipating for the season,” Walton coach Suzanne Fitzgerald said. “Our theme for this season was ‘Into the Fire.’
“It’s about understanding and knowing that we were vulnerable. We didn’t have the same lineup as the last four years. We didn’t have the same level of experience. Instead of being afraid of that, it was about confronting it head on and knowing what we are dealing with.”
Forget state title talk and winning streaks, at the start of the season Walton was simply searching for a lineup. With it, the winning streak barely survived early on as Walton was taken to a fifth set by Hebron Christian Academy before prevailing 25-13, 14-25, 25-21, 23-25, 16-14. Hebron Christian would go on to claim the Class AA-A private schools state championship.
As for Walton, the Raiders only lost one more set the rest of the way to an in-state opponent. It came in a four-set victory over Lassiter on Sept. 17. By the time the sides met in the state final, Walton owned another victory — this one a sweep — over Lassiter and the way the Raiders showed up this past Saturday, Lassiter stood little chance of slowing them down.
Phoebe Awoleye led Walton with 10 kills, while Sydney Barrett and Mary Neal chipped in with eight kills each as Walton was stellar from the line and in serve receive too. The Raiders served 100 percent for the match with 10 aces, and passed a 2.8.
“I’ve never had a team play that clean on a stage like that before,” Fitzgerald said.
Seeing Walton sweeping its way through the state playoffs makes it easy to forget just how much was in question when the first serve went off back in August. Not only did the close call against Hebron Christian prompt a lineup change, it was the perfect reminder that teams viewed this year as the year to beat Walton.
“We were all excited to win it this year,” Dupes said. “We lost a lot of players from last year and we knew we had a target on our back. We knew everyone wanted to beat us. We had the legacy of winning four in a row. We handled it all really well.”
Where there was a difference came out of state.
Two years ago, Walton took first place at the Louisville Invitational Volleyball Tournament and runner up at the Nike TOC. At the latter, Walton suffered its only loss of the season to Mater Dei and ended up finishing the season 40-1 and national champions. Last year, Walton traveled to San Diego for the California Challenge, coming in first with a victory over Cathedral Catholic, the school Walton lost to at the Durango Fall Classic in Las Vegas.
This year though, Walton lost eight times on tournament road trips. Fitzgerald does deserve credit for keeping the schedule loaded despite the roster changes.
“It was definitely tougher traveling out of state,” Dupes said. “It was still fun to see how tough the competition was and all the teams that came to Arizona and Louisville. We learned from our mistakes and we learned from playing better competition.”
For now, Walton can enjoy the thrills of victory. Come next season though, it all starts over again, the state run, the winning streak. At least the Raiders are better positioned in terms of what is coming back. Kill leaders in junior right side Chandler Parker and freshman outside Mary Neal return, as do junior setter Ashlyn Goolsby and Dupes.
“We are really excited for next year,” Dupes said. “Hopefully, we can win it all again.”
More Georgia state results:
6A: A year after losing in the state final, Allatoona (37-14) outlasted Sequoyah (41-2) in five sets 21-25, 25-21, 29-27, 17-25, 15-12 to end on top. The Buccaneers rode senior outside Chamblee Russell, who delivered 38 kills and 16 digs while hitting .375. Senior Annie Smith racked up 59 assists and a team-high 21 digs to help Allatoona defeat Sequoyah for the first time. Sequoyah — which received 31 kills from junior Paige Powers and a match-high 31 digs from freshman Skylar Martin — was 3-0 against Allatoona prior to falling to the Bucs in the state final clash. Sequoyah’s only other loss came against Alpharetta on Aug. 24.
5A: It was just the third outing of the season when McIntosh (36-1) lost to Alpharetta but the Chiefs never faltered again. McIntosh capped its year by sweeping past Whitewater (29-20) 25-10, 25-12, 25-12, to bring home the program’s third consecutive state championship.
4A: The tables were turned when Blessed Trinity (38-9) beat out St. Pius X (45-5) 25-21, 26-24, 15-25, 27-25 behind 41 digs from senior Abbie Granson. Blessed Trinity fell to St. Pius X in last year’s state final encounter. The Titans also lost to St. Pius back on Aug. 17.
3A: For the fourth season in a row, the title came down to Pace Academy and Westminster. While Westminster (29-15) started off the series with a victory, it’s been Pace (34-13) walking away with the last three trophies. The latest came in a sweep 25-21, 25-23, 25-20 as seniors Ada Jane Agolli and Lucy Ferry led the way with 27 kills combined. Junior Kalissa Greene dished out 31 assists.
In other state tournament action around the country, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. James Academy squared off for the fourth time this season with the Kansas 5A state title in the balance.
Aquinas was 1-2 against St. James, including a loss in pool play the day before meeting again in the state final. This time, Aquinas (34-7) downed St. James (40-3) in three sets 20-25, 25-19, 25-16 to earn the program’s first state title since 2014 and even the season series at 2-2. In the 6A state final, Blue Valley swept Washburn Rural 26-24, 25-21 a year after finishing runner up in the championship match. …
In North Carolina, it was North Raleigh Christian Academy (31-4) scoring its fifth consecutive 4A private school state title. Senior Skylar Buckley (7 kills, 16 assists, 16 digs) was huge as NRCA beat Durham Academy (17-8) in three 25-16, 25-15, 25-19. It was NRCA’s third victory over Durham. Junior Arica Davis contributed 10 kills and 4 blocks and sophomore Riley Buckley added 9 kills and 15 assists. …
From Arkansas, it was Jonesboro completing a perfect season at 35-0. Jonesboro swept Benton 25-21, 25-13, 28-26, to defend its 5A title from a year ago. It was the fifth straight state finals appearance overall for Jonesboro, which lost in the 6A final in 2017 and 2015 and won it in 2016. In the latest triumph, senior Clara Parker was instrumental with 21 kills and 22 digs. Maggie Beth Horn and Mikayla Johnson added 13 kills apiece while senior Kellen Church dished out 57 assists. …
And from two weeks ago in Hawaii, it was Kamehameha (39-4) upending Punahou (16-3) 21-25, 25-21, 25-16, 25-21, in the Division 1 state final. Senior Keonilei Akana put up 23 kills for Kamehameha, which also was helped out by 27 kills combined from sophomores Devin Kahahawai and Maui Robbins. Senior Tara De Saga had a match-high 37 digs. It was the 22nd state title for Kamehameha, which was making its 18th consecutive finals appearance overall.