The Jefferson volleyball team and coaches emerged from the locker room Saturday, Oct. 31, in tears following the Dragons’ home loss to Northwest Whitfield in the GHSA Class 4A semifinals. But as head coach Brittani Lawrence put it, they also left the court knowing they had played a strong match and done everything they could in the final outing of one of the best and most successful seasons in program history.
Unfortunately for the Dragons, Northwest Whitfield was just a little bit better on Saturday. After dropping the first set, 25-21, the Bruins rallied to win the next three (25-14, 25-22, 25-23) to take the match 3-1 and advance to the state championship Saturday, Nov. 7, against Marist at the Lakepoint Sports Complex in Cartersville.
For the Dragons, it was the end of the road in a season that saw them go 30-8, win an area title and reach the state semifinals for the second time in program history, the first since 2013.
“Yeah, it hurts, it stings, it burns,” Lawrence said. “But to say I’m proud of these young ladies is an understatement. Just like I told them, they have overcome so many obstacles, whether it’s personal obstacles, team obstacles, or just life obstacles. They walked out there and they gave it everything that they had, and, as a coach and a former player, that’s how you leave a court and that’s how you leave a legacy.
“It stinks, but someone has to win and someone has to lose. These girls will always and forever play with heart, and that’s what they’ve done this whole season.”
Saturday’s match got off to an ideal start for the Dragons, who won a back-and-forth first set, 25-21, using a 5-1 run midway through to create separation and giving Northwest Whitfield its first set loss in the state playoffs.
But the Bruins responded, as they jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the second set and gradually pulled away for a 25-14 to even the match at 1-1. The turning point of the match came in the third set when the Bruins erased an 11-3 deficit with a 9-0 run and then held off the Dragons 25-22, with Emma Allen’s kill giving them a 2-1 advantage.
Jefferson nearly pulled off a big comeback of its own in the fourth set after the Bruins started on a 5-0 run and led by as many as nine points at 15-6. The Dragons, who started off the set in a hole by mishandling a few Northwest Whitfield serves, shored up their defense and got some dominant play up top from senior hitters JoJo Smith and Annabelle Cox to go on a 10-1 tear and grab a 21-20 lead, sparking a back-and-forth battle to the finish. In the end, though, the Bruins logged the final two points, with Nicole Thurman’s kill clinching the 25-23 win and the match.
“There were a couple players for them that we just couldn’t shut down,” Lawrence said. “But I thought in that fourth set when we were down, we started to believe in ourselves again — that we can pass the ball, that we can hit it, that we can block, that we can serve, that we can play this game. I told them in the timeout that we’ve been working so hard, so take this opportunity to show what we can do and demonstrate to everyone and our fans that we are Jefferson Volleyball.
“Congratulations to Northwest Whitfield. That was fun, and I wish them the best of luck in the championship match. But again, I’m so proud of these girls and I wouldn’t change anything whatsoever. They did exactly what I would have wanted to see.”
Jefferson will be saying goodbye to four seniors, including Smith, who had 12 kills and 10 digs on Saturday and finished the year with a team-high 240 kills, and Cox, who had six kills and two aces to go along with a perfect 22-of-22 day on serves Saturday and had 139 kills for the season. Senior Abbey Howard had four kills and an ace Saturday and 133 kills for the season, while team captain Baley Williams helped bring together the leadership from the group that Lawrence said will be difficult to replace.
The Dragons still should be a formidable team next season with hitter Olivia Burrage (10 kills, three blocks Saturday and 169 kills and 75 blocks for the season), Maddie Grace Smith (two aces, 27 assists on Saturday and 540 assists on the year) and libero Kamdyn Hendrix (three aces, 20 digs, six assists and 21-of-21 serves on Saturday) set to headline the group of players returning.
But on Saturday, Lawrence’s focus was on celebrating the four departing players and the legacy they left on the program.
“The impact they’ve had is priceless,” she said. “These girls led this team to infinity and beyond, to overcome whatever crappy situation stands in the way. If we miss a point, those seniors are always looking for what we can do now and how we can learn from our mistake, and that’s on and off that court. They definitely have left a legacy that everyone will remember and I’m so excited for them to take this next step in life.
“I know they’re upset right now, which is fine. It’s OK to be upset. But like I said, we’re going to keep our chins up. We gave it everything we had on the court, and that’s all that we can do.”