POWDER SPRINGS — Hebron Christian Academy has returned to the top of the volleyball mountain as it claimed its second state title, beating No. 1-ranked Walker, 26-14, 25-20, 25-10, Saturday at McEachern.
The matchup was something both teams wanted at the beginning of the year, but it was the Lions who came out on top, giving their seniors 168 career wins, 45 of which came this year to set a school record.
"This is an incredible feeling," said Hebron head coach Taylor Davis. "These seniors, this team. This was such an emotional win. This journey has been great."
"It feels great (to be called a state champion)," said Malia Fisher. "It's crazy how much work we put in to get to this point. This is a huge blessing."
The Lions fell behind early in the first set, 6-1 as Walker's Kaitlyn Rodriguez had three kills in that span. Hebron inched back to 7-5 thanks to a tip over by Fisher, but the Wolverines were able to score six of the next eight points to take a 13-7 lead.
"We told each other that it's up to us," Olariu said. "Nobody was going to win this game but us."
That's when the Lions got to work. A kill by Fisher, along with an unforced errors by the Wolverines moved it to 13-9. Carly Heidger's block kept things going for the Lions with two more kills by Fisher making it 13-12. The run continued for another point thanks to a dig by Hayden McGee that set up a kill by Rebeca Olariu, tying the score at 13-13.
The teams continued to go back and forth, culminating with a kill by Rodriguez to tie the score at 16-16. A kill by McGee, an ace by Olariu and a block by Abbi Luke gave the Lions a 19-16 lead.
Hebron eventually stretched the lead to 22-17 on kills by Luke and Katie Marrero, finishing off a 15-4 run. But Walker fought back with a 7-0 run of their own, to take a 23-22 lead.
An unforced error by Walker tied the score again with a kill by Fisher giving the Lions their first set point. Rodriguez got another kill to tie the score again for the Wolverines, but the ensuing serve went into the net to give the Lions their second set point. This time, the Lions took advantage as Fisher slammed the ball on Walker's side of the court to give the Lions a 26-24 first-set win.
"The first set set the tone for the rest of the day," Davis said. "There were four different runs in that set. We came back from being down and went up. Then they came back and tied it up. It was just an emotional roller coaster."
The second set was back-and-forth throughout as there was only one occasion through the first 30 points that a team led by three. With the score tied at 14-14, Hebron got kills by McGee and Fisher, and a block by Marrero to take a 17-14 lead.
Although Walker closed it back to 18-17 on a kill by Rosemary DeDona, they would never get closer.
A kill by Olariu, an ace by Elizabeth Farmer and a kill by Heidger pushed Hebron's lead to 22-18. The teams traded unforced errors to make it 23-19. From there, kills by Olariu and McGee closed out the set, 25-20, giving the Lions a 2-0 set lead. It was the first time since Walker's Sept. 24 game against GAC that the Wolverines had fallen behind 2-0. In that game, the Wolverines came back to win the final three sets to earn the win.
However, the same thing wouldn't happen Saturday.
After a bump over by Walker's Callaway Cason gave the Wolverines a 1-0 lead, Hebron took over.
Two kills by McGee and an ace by Emma Tennant started what would be a run that seemed to never end. A combination block by Marrero and Fisher gave the Lions a 7-2 lead, and the Lions never looked back. A kill by Olariu stretched the Lions' lead to double-digits, 17-7, with consecutive blocks by Heidger moving the lead to 19-7.
As Hebron's fans started the "We Believe We Will Win" chant, Walker struggled to handle Olariu's serves as she had two-straight aces. A kill by McGee brought the the Lions to within three points of the title, 22-7.
"We wanted to end strong," Olariu said. "For me, I knew this would be my last indoor volleyball game since I'm playing beach in college."
From there, it was all academic as a serve into the net and a kill by McGee brought the Lions to championship point. And as if it was meant to be, Fisher knocked down her 11th kill on the day, sending the Lions to the middle of the court with a dog pile.
"(Malia) doesn't feel the pressure that the other girls may feel," Davis said. "She just goes out and enjoys the moment.
"The third set was perfect. We had so many blocks and aces. The girls were free and loose throughout."
McGee finished the game with 10 kills, while Olariu had eight kills and three aces. Luke also had 29 assists, while Heidger had three blocks and Tennant had 13 digs.
"For the last four years, we knew this moment was coming," Olariu said. "We made the second round our freshman year, the quarterfinals our sophomore year and the Final Four our junior year. We knew this was the year to win it all. We just had to put it all together.
"This is so special for us. "We all have different personalities, but we all came together for this one common goal. This year has been special."
Davis said the crowd was definitely the determining factor as the Hebron student section was raucous the entire day, while Walker's student section was largely quiet, even when the Wolverines had the lead.
"The crowd today was huge," Davis said. "It made the big difference in set one, and then trickled into sets two and three. We're so thankful for the entire Hebron community who came to support us. They're the reason we're here."