The Region 8-AAAA volleyball tournament used a double-elimination format this year, but Jefferson needed no mulligan in its path to a championship.
Jefferson (27-7) went 3-0 through the tournament bracket and defeated North Oconee twice on Saturday (Oct. 17) at home to secure its second-straight region title.
“It’s just phenomenal,” said Abbey Howard, one of the team’s four seniors. “We went into this weekend knowing that we could (win a region title). And that’s the most empowering feeling because of last year … We’ve never been able to (win back-to-back titles), but I think with the help of our amazing coaching staff, back-to-back was the expectation this year.”
Combined with tournament play, the Dragons went 9-0 against region competition this season. Howard noted that this is a team that has played a considerable amount of volleyball together.
“We’ve been saying this all season, but this really is the dream team,” Howard said. “All of us have been playing together since my freshman year. And so, with our seniors and with our younger girls that came up for JV their eighth grade year, we’ve been playing together. We know each other so well … We really do love each other. In this sport, we’re not playing for ourselves, and I think that’s the biggest thing.”
This region title comes after coach Brittani Lawrence guided Jefferson to its first-ever region championship last year. She pointed to the hours in the gym the team poured into this title run.
“These girls, when I say that they work probably harder than any other program, I mean that,” she said. “They are in here for practice, before practice, after practice, before school, after school. These girls have that heart to play this game.”
While the Dragons went unbeaten in the tournament, the title was hard-won.
Both wins over North Oconee went to tiebreakers. The Dragons beat the Titans 25-23, 20-25, 15-7 during Saturday’s first match. The teams met again in the finals, during which Jefferson dropped the first set 21-25. But the Dragons emerged from the break between sets on fire, tallying the first 11 points of the second set. That stretch included two forceful kills early from Olivia Burrage which set the tone. Jefferson, which was also sparked by multiple aces from Annabelle Cox and Kamdyn Hendrix, ran out to a 19-1 lead and went on to take the set handily.
“I really think that once we get our confidence up there’s no stopping us,” Howard said. “Once we get that first ball side-out, we have Olivia (Burrage) killing it on the ones, once she does that everyone’s energy picks up, and everyone realizes how fun of match this can be … We love the tough ones. I would say North Oconee did a phenomenal job. The score was rough, but I feel like they really did push every point, every point we were fighting for.”
Lawrence credited a change of mentality between the first two sets of the championship match.
“We kind of got comfortable in our shoes and let off the gas pedal a little bit,” she said. “And the biggest thing is they realized that. The coaches didn’t have to tell them. They realized that they weren’t performing up to their standard. And they got it together and it showed in the score and it showed in the results tonight.”
Riding the momentum of their set-two domination, Jefferson ran out to an 11-3 lead in the tiebreaker on its way to finishing off both the set and the match.
In the championship match, Burrage finished with 10 kills and four blocks, while JoJo Smith had 11 kills and seven digs. Cox totaled five aces, while Hendrix had four aces. Maddie Grace Smith set up the offense with 23 assists. She also had eight digs.
While Jefferson now has its second region title, Howard pointed to the influence of last year's region championship team on this year's run
“I think that the standard set by last year’s seniors definitely transferred over,” Howard said. “I’m so thankful for them and everything they did to make our team this year the way that it is.”
Next up for the Dragons is the opening round of the state tournament. Jefferson will likely take on North Clayton Wednesday (Oct. 21) at home.
The Dragons are intent on improving upon last year’s Sweet 16 run, according to Howard.
“I just feel like we have the power and we have the energy this year that we’ve never had before, because we’re ready for it,” she said. “Personally, I have only made it to the Sweet 16, sophomore year and junior year that’s what we did. All of us are so ready to break that barrier down and just keep going and show everyone that we can.”
Lawrence is eager to get started.
“I am so thrilled,” she said. “These girls know that they have such a strong talent and capability to go out there and play some really, really good volleyball … They love the fight. They love to step out and fight for their team, for their teammates, and that’s when they play the best.”
DRAGONS HOST BREAST CANCER AWARENESS DAY
Jefferson used the final day of the Region 8-AAAA tournament to host a breast cancer awareness "Pink Out." Lawrence said multiple players on the team having had family members diagnosed with the disease motivated the Dragons to put together the occasion.
“We empower one another,” Lawrence said. “I love the saying, ‘I want to be the person that fixes somebody else’s crown without telling them.’ We empower. We’re a sisterhood, and we’re a family … It was just a moment to recognize these strong ladies in our lives who have suffered so much, but who have always just been our biggest cheerleaders.”