The crowd at Marietta High School held their breath with each dig, set, and spike, the ball flying back and forth over the net. Each hit sent it spinning in a new rotation as the tension only grew. Finally, Jessie Doyal ended the suspense. Leaping up and hammering the ball down and between the diving defenders, Doyal’s shot ended the thrilling fifth set as McIntosh exhaled and screamed in excitement, winners of the state volleyball championship. A year after falling to Buford on the same court in the same final pairing, the Chiefs are champions for the third time after the 3-2 win (25-21, 25-23, 20-25, 22-25, 15-10).
“This is what they set their sights on from the beginning. They knew they had it in them the whole time,” said McIntosh coach Wendy Mabon. “To see them come out here and play like they did, through all five sets always believing, never stopping, is incredible.”
To outside observers, Buford might have seemed unbeatable. At 40-4 and ranked first all season, the Wolves had won back-to-back titles, including beating McIntosh 3-1 last year. That challenge drove the Chiefs (31-3, ranked second) even harder. They wanted that revenge.
“It is a lot sweeter. I think that actually helped our momentum knowing that last year we came in and didn’t do what we wanted to do,” said Mabon. “Coming back this year, we knew that it was going to be a fight, and we were up for it.”
The returning starters remembered the bitter taste of losing, and they didn’t want to end that way again.
“This is absolutely amazing, especially after last year. The seniors, our mindset was we want state. We want revenge,” said Lynsey Hamblin. “Every single day going to practice that was our goal: state state state. Coming here and doing it, it’s a dream come true, especially for our seniors who aren’t playing in college. This is the best way we could go out.”
The win is the gratifying result of a year’s worth of blood, sweat, and tears, and it was a price well worth paying.
“We worked so hard all season. Because we went last year, going to the state championship meant a whole lot more to us than it did last year,” said Caroline Cameron. “We didn’t come in just thankful to be here, we came in ready to win.”
Buford hadn’t yielded a set yet in the state tournament, but they hadn’t faced a well-oiled machine quite like McIntosh. The Chiefs seized control of the first set at 9-8 and never relinquished it. The Wolves kept them close until a late surge sealed it at 25-21.
McIntosh controlled most of the second set, leading by as much as six points before Buford clawed back to tie it at 20-20. Key blocks by Jessie Doyal, Ngozi Iloh, and Reagan Corley kept them at bay, and Erykah Lovett’s winning kill at 25-23 staked the Chiefs to a 2-0 advantage.
A team of Buford’s pedigree isn’t going down without a fight. They staved off elimination with a 25-20 win in the third set and followed it up with a 25-22 win in the fourth set.
Having run through the playoffs not losing a single set themselves, McIntosh had to regroup after Buford took the third and fourth sets to force the decisive fifth set. Iloh opened the set with a block for the first point, but Buford ripped off four straight points to force a timeout. The Chiefs regrouped and responded to push back into a tie. Lovett’s kills to make it 8-7 would steal the lead back to stay. A Hamblin ace stretched the lead to 11-7 to force a scrambling Wolves team to call a timeout. Two-straight Buford points got them back within two points, but they could get no closer. Another Lovett kill, a hit into the net, and a point from Casey Raschen set up match point, and Doyal did the rest.
The feeling of ultimate victory is one the team will never forget.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling. I have no words,” said Brianna Becerra. “It’s the most amazing feeling I’ve ever felt.”
The Chiefs found another gear with the title on the line. It was the veterans who lead the way, building on the lessons learned from last year’s disappointment.
“The seniors knew from last year. They came in with that hunger and that fire,” said Mabon. “Honestly, they just weren’t going to accept anything less than a win, and they did it.”
As young talent emerged, it was the senior class of Brianna Becerra, Lynsey Hamblin, Olivia Stewart, Casey Raschen, Caroline Cameron, and Finn Millians that were the heartbeat of the Chiefs.
“Oh my goodness. What can you say about those incredible girls? They’re just awesome,” said Mabon. “The heart and the selflessness and the team spirit that they bring and the servant leadership to this team is irreplaceable. They are the heart and soul of this team. They so deserve this.”
Champions in 2007 and 2013, the Chiefs think they may not have to wait long to add trophy number four. A loaded group returns next season with their aim on back-to-back crowns.
“The freshman and sophomores coming back are just lights out incredible,” said Mabon. “It’s going to be an exciting couple of years for us.”
There’s time to celebrate now. The competition is already dreading next season.
To see more photos from the match, click [btn type=”default or primary or success or info or warning or danger or link” link=”http://www.cdphotography23.com/Sports/High-School/Volleyball/Volleyball-2017/McIntosh-vs-Buford”]here[/btn].