When her team broke the huddle for the start of the fourth set up 2-1 on Jackson County Saturday in the 8-AAA volleyball finals, Jefferson coach Brittani Lawrence asked three things of her players with a title hanging in the balance: to communicate, to focus “and to ball out.”
Lawrence believed her team succeeded on all three counts in what ended up being the final set. Jefferson surged late to win the set 25-22 and take the championship match 3-1 for the program’s first-ever area volleyball title. The Dragons ended the final set on a 14-5 run.
“I think they left it all out on the court with those three factors right there,” Lawrence said.
Though the title was decided with a four-set win over a 34-win Jackson County team, junior JoJo Smith said plenty more hours went into the history-making title.
“It feels great,” Smith said of the win. “We’ve worked hard for it. Every day in practice we do drills that work on specific areas, our problem areas, and we just keep putting in that work.”
Jefferson opened Saturday’s action with a three-set sweep of Morgan County (25-13, 25-13, 25-14) in the semifinals. But the Dragons dropped the first set of the championship match against Jackson County 20-25.
“Losing the first set kind of gave them the perspective of, ‘Hey, we’ve got to play. We’ve got to fight. They’re not going to give it to us’ … It was a good reality check to get back into the zone,” Lawrence said.
The Dragons responded by rallying for a 25-20 win in the second set and winning the third and fourth sets with scores of 25-22.
Smith agreed that losing the first set lit a fire under the team.
“It made us want it even more, because we know we have the good potential of our team,” she said.
Jefferson trailed 17-11 in the final set before making its charge. The Dragons eventually drew within a point, 20-19, after Margo Perry picked up points on back-to-back tips at the net. The Panthers then hit into the net twice, putting the Dragons ahead 21-20. With the set later tied 22-22, Maddie Grace Smith played the ball into an empty spot on the Panthers’ side of the net for a point. She then closed out the win with back-to-back aces, both striking near the back line, for the final two points.
“That’s our girl,” Lawrence said of Maddie Grace Smith’s clutch serving.
The coach added that the sophomore setter’s calm under fire is “absolutely amazing.”
“She knew she was the only one who controlled that ball,” Lawrence said. “All she had to do was toss, make good contact and do her thing. She definitely trusted her training. I think she’s one of our greatest servers on this team when it comes to what serve she provides and the consistency as well. She definitely proved that point tonight.”
Jefferson’s area championship victory gives it 18 wins in its last 19 matches since a Sept. 3 loss to Jackson County, as well as momentum heading into the state tournament.
“We have been training so hard lately, so hard – long hours, short hours, morning practices, after-school practices,” Lawrence said. “They have put in so much blood, sweat and tears into this game.”
JoJo Smith echoed that sentiment, saying the hard work is paying off for a 33-win squad, which will be a No. 1 seed for the state tournament.
“We’re playing good,” she said. “We’re definitely a team.”
Jackson County, meanwhile, has the state tournament ahead of it, too, after finishing as a No. 2 seed. Coach Jeff White let his team — which swept Hart County (25-19, 25-12, 25-20) to reach the finals — know after Saturday’s loss that it played hard.
“That’s all I told them was that they played really hard, and it just didn’t work out score-wise,” he said. “But we played really hard. We were outmatched as far as size goes. There’s nothing we can do about a 6-2 girl at the net doing tips way over our girls. It’s not an excuse. It’s just what happened.”
White said the second seed out of 8-AAA has a more favorable path through the state tournament, as the No. 1 seed, in all likelihood, would draw Greater Atlanta Christian in the second round.
Jackson County, which has already set a school record for wins in a season, will face Murray County (10-24), the No. 3 seed out of Area 6-AAA, Saturday (Oct. 19) at 10 a.m. in the first round of the state tournament. The match will be played at Jackson High School in Butts County.
White expressed his pride in his team.
“I will stick with my girls any time,” he said. “I’d rather coach them than any other team in the state. They’re great kids, and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and today, Jefferson beat us.”
Jefferson will also play Oct. 19, hosting the No. 4 seed from Area 6-AAA, Lakeview-Ft. Oglethorpe (12-20) at approximately 12:15 p.m. (The match will follow Pike County vs. GAC at 11 a.m. at The Area at Jefferson High School).
JoJo Smith said success is a motivator for more success after winning the area title.
“It just makes us want it even more because we don’t have that many titles in volleyball,” she said. “It’s always towards different sports.”
Lawrence, who didn't immediately know her team's first-round state tournament opponent in the moments following the win over Jackson County, is excited for her team to embark on the state tournament after securing a top-seed.
“All I know is that we’re going to state, and we’re (a) number one (seed)," she said. "… So we'll do our thing. We’ll ball out.”