By MATTHEW BROWN
Journal Sports Writer
Maria Huelsman knows exactly what will happen when she feels she has to get heated with her Houston County High volleyball players.
“They never crumble when I get on them,” said Huelsman after, for the first time in school history, the Bears won a GHSA playoff match at home. On Thursday, it was a 3-1 win for Houston County – No. 2 seed from Area 2-AAAAA – against one of two fifth-place finishing teams in the state tournament, Union Grove High.
So why did Huelsman have to get a little angry? After the Bears took a 2-0 match lead, Union Grove followed a 10-minute break by winning Game 3 rather handily, 25-10. The match was best of 5, and Huelsman said their “ugly” play continued into the fourth game, which Houston County survived 25-22.
“They’re used to me getting in their ear,” said Huelsman. She complimented the Bears for their resiliency in both withstanding her own tirades and the threats posed by Union Grove, which had won as many as 26 matches this season coming into state play.
“I don’t have any superstars, just 11 girls who will bust their tails.”
To build the 2-0 lead, Houston County won Game 1 25-19 and Game 2 25-13.
Union Grove, however, owned Game 3 from the outset. Sierra Woodman of the Bears scored an early kill, but it was the Wolverines out-hitting Houston to lead 5-2 and get the first timeout from the Bears bench.
Freshman Lainey Choiniere set Sydney Hicks for a sideout kill, but Union Grove scored two straight tap kills. Another Houston sideout came from Lauren Vidmar’s assist to Woodman, but a series of passing and hitting breakdowns allowed the visitors to keep a three- to four-point advantage. They also blocked Hicks twice to lead 12-8.
Katelyn Oxendine’s soft touch in the middle earned a Houston sideout, but her team couldn’t sustain any rallies, and Union Grove went on the biggest rally of the match starting with another block point. Whatever they did – or even attempted to do – was right in a 10-0 run.
So it was on to Game 4 and an 0-0 slate for Houston, which showed its poise on two Choiniere-to-Hicks scoring combinations and great effort plays from the freshman setter, senior libero Megan Clark and Woodman just to save one point. Clark was taking more hits from her back-court spot, and the Bears were up 6-4 after 10 rallies.
Gabi Clevenger delivered some plays up front, scoring through blocks for a sideout. Viviana Garcia, another dual senior threat, hit inside the backline for a 9-5 lead.
Union Grove made its run using a block and a service ace to tie the game 14-14. From there, Houston reeled off six in a row with Choiniere sets to Clevenger, Garcia, and Woodman, whose shot overcame the Wolves’ blocking efforts.
Still, the Bears couldn’t get comfortable when Union Grove pulled back within two at 23-21. It was Woodman again busting the blocks for a needed sideout, and though the visitors withstood two of Hicks’ attacks at match point, it was Garcia scoring the winner on a two-hander.
Union Grove played a tight opening game with Houston, getting the edge in overall kills but not in the fewest mistakes. The Bears only had hard kills from Garcia and Clark when it was tied 9-9, but Oxendine won a net battle in a 3-0 Houston run.
Garcia passed a corner-to-corner assist to Hicks, whose shot landed inside the back line. Garcia, Choiniere and Clark made great saves to force a long hit making it 17-12. It stayed a five-point edge as Hicks scored amid several Wolverine errors.
Hicks was shaken up on a rally, and with Union Grove on serve the score went to 21-19. Clevenger had two big points on Choiniere and Vidmar assists, and Garcia had the serve and dig on game point.
Hicks returned to the action in Game 2 and hit any volleyball in her vicinity. Woodman added an ace, Choiniere set Garcia and Clark ran up as close as she could to hit a sideout kill for 6-3.
Langley Anderson sent two unreturned serves, and Garcia aced one. In an 8-3 Bear run, Garcia set four assists, three hit by Woodman with the fourth a cross-court smash from Hicks (18-9). A pair of late sideouts came off Clevenger’s hands, and Garcia secured the 2-0 match lead with a let ace.
Veterans High opened the GHSA AAAA volleyball playoffs Wednesday by advancing to the Sweet 16 with a 3-0 sweep of Richmond Academy 25-7, 25-14 and 25-23.
Leading the way was Jalyn Slaughter with 14 kills and four blocks. Erin Byars and Aaliyah Sebero added four kills each. Aspen Coggins registered 14 assists and Kaylynn Cason added 11 assists. Libero Lauren Proulx served four aces and had 13 digs while Chloe Webb and Darlyn Davis added six digs each.
“Thank you to all the students, cheerleaders, V squad, and the faculty that filled the stands last night ... we appreciate you,” said coach Nicole Miranda.
On Tuesday, the Warhawks will host either Chamblee or Alexander High at home for the second round.