Winder-Barrow volleyball coach David Rows hoped a tough strength of schedule during the regular season would translate to postseason success. But a late-season injury bug amid a well-balanced GHSA Area 8-AAAAAA took its toll in the area tournament Thursday, Oct. 10, as the Bulldoggs lost a pair of matches to Lanier and Habersham Central and were eliminated from state playoff contention for the first time since 2013.
“Obviously it’s disappointing, but our girls did well this year,” said Rows, whose team finished the year 29-18. “We had one of the hardest strengths of schedule, and for the girls to win 29 (matches) is a testament to their ability, and it’s a testament to how deep our area is that we weren’t able to get over that hump.”
After losing their tournament opener in straight sets to fourth-seeded Lanier (16-25, 23-25), the Bulldoggs got off to a hot start against second-seeded Habersham Central in an elimination contest, taking the first set 25-12. But the Raiders, who wound up finishing third in the tournament, recovered, taking the second set 25-20 and the third set 15-8 to claim the victory.
“We were just rolling in that first set, and I thought, ‘OK, here we go,’” Rows said. “But Habersham just had too much senior depth. They came out and didn’t exactly play their best volleyball, but they did enough to win.
“We had some success playing against both those teams during the regular season, but injuries really hurt us.”
The key injury for the Bulldoggs was all-area junior setter Macie Zakrocyznski.
“We did well with some young players stepping in and keeping us going, but I feel like when you lose that continuity, it throws you out of rhythm,” Rows said. “I feel like we were hitting our stride, playing well defensively, starting to click on all cylinders, and then Macie gets hurt. We were able to get her back eventually, but it was tough for the girls to get back in rhythm.
“We had some sets that I thought looked really good and other sets where there were too many unforced errors.”
Rows and the Bulldoggs will say goodbye to four key seniors, including all-area hitters Kori Estes and Payton Mitchell along with hitter Aaliyah Saunders and setter/defensive specialist Alexis Thao, and while Rows expects 2020 to be somewhat of a transition year, he is confident in the overall health of the program, which still boosts plenty of young talent.
“It’s kind of the end of an era when we’re losing those girls who have been contributing and helping lead us for a long time,” Rows said. “But the strength of our program right now is this freshman class we had this year. We brought several of them up this year to get that varsity experience, and they played more later in the season and did pretty well. We’ve just got to continue getting them acclimated to the speed of the varsity level, getting them stronger in the weight room, but this is probably one of the best freshman classes we’ve had come through.
“That might not translate right away when they’re sophomores, but they’ve got a chance to be really good.”