Apalachee volleyball coach Joey Alfonso said the word of the 2019-2020 school year among students is “perseverance,” and his team showed plenty of that at home Saturday, Oct. 12, in the GHSA Area 8-AAAAAA tournament.
Apalachee came back through the losers bracket and rallied past Gainesville in four sets in the championship match (23-25, 33-31, 25-18, 25-23) to win its second consecutive area title after losing to the Red Elephants earlier in the day.
“The girls showed a lot of composure today,” said Alfonso, whose team claimed its fifth area title in program history, all under his leadership. The Wildcats also won their area three straight times from 2012-2014.
“You never know how many times you’re going to have a chance to win an area championship,” Alfonso said, “so it makes it that much sweeter to go back-to-back.”
The top-seeded Wildcats (44-7) defeated Lanier in three sets (25-13, 23-25, 15-11) in the first round of the tournament on Thursday, Oct. 10, and cruised through the first set against third-seeded Gainesville on Saturday morning (25-16) before losing the next two sets (15-25, 11-15) to drop the match and fall into an elimination contest with second-seeded Habersham Central. But Apalachee recovered, sweeping the Raiders (25-17, 25-23) to get into the championship match and then knocking off Gainesville to win the title.
“We struggled with just about everybody (in the area) all year long,” said Alfonso, whose team went 9-1 in area play in the regular season (not counting a 2-1 loss to Dacula in August that wasn’t applied to the area standings). I think top to bottom, it was pretty well-balanced, and just about every match we played was tight. A lot of that is we’ve got the firepower to be really, really good, and we’ve put up some numbers to show that, but we also make a lot of mistakes. And when we start making a lot of mistakes, we tend to be a team that can’t stop the bleeding.”
Apalachee got off to a fast start in the first set of the championship match Saturday afternoon, grabbing a 20-13 lead, only to see Gainesville (37-8) roar back for a 25-23 win. In the marathon second set, the Red Elephants jumped out quickly to a 10-4 advantage. But the Wildcats staged their own rally with a 7-0 run to go up 11-10, and the set went back-and-forth from there until Apalachee finally secured the 33-31 win.
The Wildcats trailed 7-3 early in the third set, but eventually climbed their way back into it and wound up controlling it the rest of the way for a 25-18 win. They then used an 8-0 run in the fourth set to grab a commanding 18-11 lead and held on at the end for the 25-23 victory that clinched the championship.
“I think we started swinging a little more and went back to what had gotten us to this point,” Alfonso said of his team’s improved play as the day went on. “We’d been playing really conservative and playing not to lose instead of playing to win. Gainesville’s a great team and did a really great job. One of the things we struggled with early on was their play at the net. We gave them some free balls and an opportunity to set that middle and win the point, and they beat us just about every time on that play.
“We needed to attack their setter and our girls eventually did that, and I think we had them on their heels for most of the (championship) match, versus the earlier one where we just tried to play defense and win, which we’re not good enough to do.”
Alfonso credited the leadership of his veteran players. Among those: his youngest daughter, senior outside hitter Ellie Alfonso (the area player of the year), all-area selections Olivia Swift (senior right-side hitter/setter) and Emily Crocker (junior outside hitter), and senior middle Logan Butchart. Alfonso went 40-of-48 serving on the day with 4 aces, 51 kills and 5 assists. Swift was 48-of-52 with 10 aces, 3 kills and 68 assists, and Crocker was 40-of-47 with 5 aces, 63 kills and 47 assists.
It was Ellie Alfonso who pulled the team in when the Wildcats were down 10-4 in the second set to Gainesville and gave a pep talk that helped spark the turnaround.
“She kind of went into that pretty relaxed mode early where she didn’t want to be the one to fail, and I finally told her, ‘If you want to win at something big in life, you’ve got to be willing to fail,’” Joey Alfonso said. “And she really started hitting the ball well and took over, and she was a big reason for our success. For me personally, to see my daughter win back-to-back championships is a pretty special deal.
“I’m happy as can be that we were able to secure the No. 1 seed and that she gets to play another home match for Apalachee.”
As the No. 1 seed, the sixth-ranked Wildcats may get more than one home match in the state playoffs, but first they’ll need to get past a talented River Ridge team in the first round, set for 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19.
The 10th-ranked Knights (28-16) enter as a No. 4 seed but are from a loaded Region 6, which features four top-10 teams.
“It’s always going to be a battle with that group of teams,” Alfonso said. “We’ll go and do some research and try to study what all they’ve got, but we’re excited to be here.”