Walton may be a stronger team than it thinks.
After winning four straight state championships, the Lady Raiders had some concerns after graduating most of their top hitters from last year’s title team.
While it’s still early in the season, Walton seemed to be pleased with the offensive output it got Saturday.
The Lady Raiders played in the Cobb County Tournament for the first time in five years and had enough firepower to not only win the title, but hand defending champion Harrison its first loss of the season with a 25-23, 17-25, 15-9 victory Saturday at Marietta High School.
Senior Ashley Miller and junior newcomer Tai Bierria stepped up as the offensive stalwarts for Walton (6-2), giving the Lady Hoyas fits up front with seven kills each and a combined three block-assists.
But what really helped Walton overcome Harrison (16-1) is its experience of playing under pressure. The Lady Raiders came out a different team in the third set, after the Lady Hoyas dominated the second.
“I think that we just had to settle down and relax and to take pressure off ourselves,” Walton coach Suzanne Fitzgerald said. “We kind of turned against each other in the second set when things got intense, rather than channeling our energy against the opponents.
“In the third set, we just settled down and realized that we were playing our favorite sport in the world.”
Walton also benefitted from several hitting and mental errors by Harrison’s players.
With the third set even at 2-all, the teams engaged in what turned out to be the lengthiest point of the match, ultimately ending when Maddie Bright missed a cross-court kill attempt that landed just past the sideline. Bright’s miss gave Walton its first lead of the third set, and it was the start of a six-point Lady Raider run on Dalaney Hans’ serve.
Walton gained even more momentum on the following point when Bierria and Miller blocked a Harrison attack. Another hitting error by Harrison followed, and Walton then caught a break when Bierria’s serve tipped the net and fell on Harrison’s side of the court.
Ahead 6-2 in the final set, the Lady Raiders got more separation when Bierria followed with a kill, and then another service ace, before Harrison coach Clay Taylor called his second timeout of Walton’s run.
Walton held its lead by allowing Harrison to win just two points on serve. A kill by Ashley Dean gave the Lady Raiders a 13-8 lead, and they would go on to win the final two points of the match on Harrison miscues.
“We just put it all out there (in the third set), and it was great to win,” Bierria said. “We passed a lot better. We didn’t let (Harrison) get into our heads. We really just stuck together as a team.”
Hans, typically a defensive specialist, finished with 15 assists as a setter after switching positions with Celeste Fitzgerald, who moved to libero. The switch was made to give Walton more offensive options.
Harrison’s Caroline Ostman and Katie Doering each finished with eight kills. Over the weekend, Ostman became the first Harrison player to eclipse 1,000 career kills and 1,000 career digs.
Bright and Abigail Moss each had three kills, while Jocelyn Mahayag, Camryn Bihary and Kodi Smith had two aces apiece.
“The team played well all day,” Taylor said. “Proud of the effort put forth. We have work to do each day to make our team better. We will be back in the gym on Tuesday to reach our team beat.”
Walton defeated Walker and Lassiter in straight sets in bracket play to reach the finals. Harrison advanced to the championship with two-set wins over Pope and North Cobb.
(Reprinted from the Marietta Daily Journal, August 31, 2014. Written by