After winning a Georgia state championship in 2016, coach Suzanne Fitzgerald of Walton High School in Marietta felt a major change was necessary for 2017.
But what could possibly have been wrong with a team that returned the large majority of its players from a squad that won 39 matches and captured its second straight 7A title, the largest classification in Georgia?
“As a group after last season we needed to fix some things with chemistry and leadership-wise,” Fitzgerald said. “Making relationships stronger was a priority. If you can build that you can commit on a much deeper and stronger level.”
All Walton did this past season is compile a 40-1 record while playing an extremely challenging schedule that included three out-of-state tournaments filled with top-flight competition. The end result for the Raiders was the program’s seventh state title in the last eight years and 12th all-time.
For that, Walton is the 2017 VolleyballMag.com girls’ high-school team of the year.
“The entire experience was incredible on and off the court,” said Fitzgerald, who completed her 12th season at Walton’s helm in 2017. “I always say let’s commit to being a better version of ourselves every day. It’s not about rankings or championships, it’s about us as players and people. That right there clears us of any expectations externally or internally that will get in the way. You can’t do more than your very best. That’s always been my logic.”
Madison Morey, left, and Walton teammate Gabby Gonzales
Standout outside hitter Gabby Gonzales, the Georgia Gatorade state player of the year, said one key aspect of the team’s success was the introduction of a mentoring program.
“It made us united and was a big part of what we did this season,” she said. “An upperclassman was paired with an underclassman and you would talk school and volleyball and were there to help. The program helped the team.”
Walton did its very best in 2017 amidst a hectic schedule that saw it tackle challenging out-of-state tournaments in Louisville, Kentucky; Tampa, Florida; and Phoenix, Arizona. Walton won the Louisville Invitational Volleyball Tournament, the Berkeley Premier in Tampa and took second at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix, where it suffered its only loss of the season to Mater Dei out of Santa Ana, California.
“We played some very good competition outside of the state,” Walton junior middle blocker-outside hitter Megan Froemming said.
But Froemming, injured most of the year, said the team’s depth also helped it get ready for its grueling schedule.
“We trained hard as a team in practice,” she said. “We were able to compete with each other and that provided some of our toughest competitions that helped go out there and play these other teams.”
Gonzales added: “We had so much depth. That’s what made us so strong. We had great players at every position. If one person was having an off game or they were injured, we had another person just as capable right there to do the job and come in and play well and do well to support the team.”
How dominant was Walton overall this season? The Raiders won 97 of 101 sets, never losing a set inside the state of Georgia. Besides the two set losses to Mater Dei, Walton dropped one set to St. Joseph’s of St. Louis and one to Mesa (Arizona).
Gonzales is a 6-foot-4 junior who finished the season with 558 kills.
“An obvious reason for our success is having a 6-4, six-rotation outside who is as experienced as Gabby,” said Fitzgerald. “On top of that she’s one of the best leaders. We also had all the other pieces we needed.
“We had three girls competing for the libero spot, so they all were working hard. Reilly MacNeill (a 6-2 junior) was in the middle and she’s committed to Ohio State with Gabby. We also had Riley Spurlin (6-1 junior) on the right side and Jordan Rush (6-0 junior) on the pin as well. We had a lot of options.”
Walton setter Caroline Cheney, a 5-10 junior, did indeed have a lot of weapons at her disposal. In addition to Gonazles’ massive kill totals, MacNeill posted 301 kills, hit .502 and also had 103 total blocks. Spurlin had 220 kills and hit .342, while Rush had 179 kills and hit .342 as well. It’s hard to lose a lot of matches when a team hits .413, which is exactly what Walton did this season.
“Caroline as a setter grew so much this season,” said Fitzgerald. “She sat out her sophomore year after transferring in. She was our manager as a sophomore. She stepped right into her role and fought her way into it. It tough when you are training without playing time. She wanted it and she really proved herself.”
Gonzales was joined on the all-state team by MacNeill, Spurlin and Cheney. Gonzales and MacNeill, as mentioned above, are committed to Ohio State, while Froemming has committed to Georgia and junior libero Molly Pember is committed to Auburn. Senior Katie Crocker, a 6-1, right side-middle, is headed to Kennesaw State and freshman Emery Dupes, a 5-4, DS-libero with 302 digs in 2017, has given a verbal to Florida State.
Looking back, Gonzales said this year’s state title ultimately had even more meaning.
“The last two state titles were good, but this season overall was more eventful and important because of the chemistry we developed as a team,” she said.
“It was special.”