Since the Lady Raiders’ title streak began in 2010, key players would graduate, only for others to take their place.
And while Walton is a contender to win its fifth straight title — it returns junior setter Celeste Fitzgerald, senior libero Ashley Dean and sophomore rightside hitter Dalaney Hans — the team may be faced with a new slate of obstacles.
Walton has to replace the four front-row starters who helped the Lady Raiders win the Class AAAAAA state title with a four-set victory over Chattahoochee last fall. And with the overall numbers a little lower than usual, Walton may have a tougher time replacing some of last year’s firepower.
“Having graduated four seniors who were also starters, we recognize that much of the chemistry we’ve had will be much different for this season,” Walton coach Suzanne Fitzgerald said. “We don’t have the numbers or depth that we’ve had in the past, so if we do experience injuries or illness, we could really struggle this year.”
Meanwhile, Harrison put together what was arguably its strongest team since it won a state championship in 2006, and the Lady Hoyas are hungry to reach the top again, especially after being stopped by South Forsyth in a five-set quarterfinal last year. Prior to that, Harrison made consecutive trips to the state championship, only to fall to Walton both times.
The Lady Hoyas are returning senior Georgia commitment Caroline Ostman on the outside and senior libero Kodi Smith, a Butler commitment. Harrison will also rely heavily on sophomore middle hitter Katie Doering and senior libero Jocelyn Mahayag, both of whom made the all-state team a year ago.
Harrison is also the favorite to secure another area crown, this time in 4AAAAAA. But while the Lady Hoyas appear to be solid in all positions, they still have to show it on court.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” coach Clay Taylor said. “We have to earn it first. On paper, we’re a pretty good team, but we have to prove it every day at practice.”
Meanwhile, Walton’s Area 5AAAAAA got more interesting with the addition of east Cobb rival Pope, which had played in a lower classification in recent years. The teams have enjoyed a strong rivalry in volleyball, particularly in 2009, when Pope won 15-13 in the fifth set of the state championship match.
Walton and Pope, along with Lassiter and Roswell, could make for some intense matchups.
“We’ll be playing with our classic rivals,” Pope coach Bryan Jones said. “It will be neat to get back in there and play against some of those teams.”
Pope struggled last year, mostly due to injuries — Jones said there were only four players on the roster who didn’t miss any time to injury — but most of the last year’s wounded are set to be full-strength when the season begins, including junior setter Morgan Dees, who was lost for the season with a foot injury last August.
Despite their troubles last year, the Lady Greyhounds still made it to the second round of the state tournament.
Lassiter, which fell to Walton in the state quarterfinals, is returning most of its team, led by sophomore outside hitter Libby Bochniak.