By MATTHEW BROWN
Journal Sports Writer
To reach the GHSA Elite 8 for the second year in a row, Veterans High volleyball’s major threat in the middle wasn’t whom a season-long follower of the Warhawks would expect it to be. And bringing the term ‘pancake’ to the forefront of this indoor sport was a setter for coach Nicole Miranda who did not make All-Area.
Yes, Veterans is back in the state quarterfinals, this time in Class AAAA, after sweeping the Chamblee Charter Bulldogs of DeKalb County 3-0 Tuesday at home. The scores of each game (25-13, 25-17, 25-8) wouldn’t suggest it, but there were times when the Warhawks had to battle out of deficits that made Miranda a little concerned.
“Aside from the first 10 points of the first game, I would say (it was Elite 8 caliber),” said Miranda. “We were maybe just a little nervous.”
The coach counted 12 hitting errors in Game 1, and the Warhawks were down as many as six. She said the team all season cut down on unforced errors, instead focusing on one pass at a time and not going for the serious spike unless it’s there.
So in this game she called for time with the message of playing relaxed and under control.
“We got into a lull a little bit,” said senior captain Chloe Webb. “But we came out of it and brought up the crowd, got our energy. We built each other up.”
“We started off a little rocky because we couldn’t get anything down,” said senior captain Aspen Coggins. “Once we got the first one down, everything started falling into place and we got in our groove.”
Hayley Crews, junior middle hitter, forced Chamblee into two errors at the net to help the Warhawks go from 10-4 to 10-8 behind. Erin Byars, a sophomore, delivered in a way defensively on a sideout that turned all momentum around.
“The play we ricocheted and dug, and the ball went way (right), and Erin pulled it back (in play),” said Miranda. “We got it over, and they hit it in the net. The place just went nuts. We were like, ‘Hustle plays are going to win this.’”
Two times in Game 3, sophomore Kaylynn Cason made digs that were no ordinary digs. The ‘pancake’ is in a way an optical illusion, like the famous ‘Immaculate Reception’ of Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris in the 1972 NFL playoffs.
“It’s when you stretch out your hand flat on the ground and the ball doesn’t hit the ground; it hits your hand,” said Webb. “It looks like it hits the ground. It takes skill to do that.
“I was right there in front of (one) and I thought it hit the ground.”
“Some (teams) get a ‘pancake’ once a season,” said Miranda. “Because (the hand) is flat, they call it a ‘pancake.’ We do it in practice. A lot of times, the girls tend to watch it drop, and I tell them to play everything.
“I just felt our emotion, hustle plays and the fact that we played really smart once we got in the hole. In the third game, we just slammed the door. They had a couple of decent players, and they got frustrated. We knew if we took them out of their game defensively, we would have a good shot.”
Jayln Slaughter, the Area 1-AAAA Player of the Year, smashed the first set she received (from Cason), but after a series of errors it was Crews taking over the middle. She scored two kills set by Coggins late in a 12-0 run that put Game 1 away.
“(Crews) had a great practice (Monday),” said Miranda. “I told her that she goes against Jayln every day, and if you can block her and hit against her, you can hit against anybody in the state. Bring that to the game.
“She would get timid, but I told her to swing away, lay it all out there. She had a couple of key blocks on (Chamblee’s) best player. That’s what I like about this team, that we have a lot of different support roles we can bring in.”
Veterans’ 12-0 run in Game 1 began when Webb took a Coggins pass outside to score. Coggins was on serve throughout, and led her group to steady play while it was Chamblee breaking down. Coggins had two aces as well one more set to Webb on a kill to the backcourt, and the ending assist scored by Aaliyah Serbo.
The Warhawks scored the first five of Game 2 with two aces by senior libero Lauren Proulx. Chamblee, taking advantage of more struggles by Slaughter, got within one at 6-5 when Byars went cross-court for a sideout kill.
Cason served an ace and brought the lead back up to five. It was 15-9 on a sideout kill for Webb and a tap shot from Crews. Sebero gave the Warhawks another sideout and Slaughter finally found a shot curling around Coggins for a kill (18-11).
When Chamblee pulled within four, senior Alyssa Pacheco made key digs and took serve for an ace. One more tap score ended it with a 2-0 Warhawk lead.
Slaughter, a state leader in blocks last year, didn’t have one Tuesday until the first rally of Game 3. Proulx and Webb served early aces, but the game belonged to Cason, who added six assists to her ‘pancakes.’ Slaughter scored four times from Cason, Coggins hit three kills and Cason served Veterans from 6-3 to 17-3.
The Elite 8 is today (Saturday), and the Warhawks will play at Columbus High. The pairing was determined by a GHSA seeding committee, one that last season put Veterans at No. 8, which meant playing No. 1 Sandy Creek on the road.
“I don’t think we’re the eighth team (this year),” said Miranda. And she was right, only the committee moved the area champion Veterans team up one spot to No. 7. Columbus has played 43 matches since Aug. 10 with a record of 28-25. Veterans has just five losses in 39 matches, the last one being to Northside in the county championships Oct. 4.
“We have a pretty good shot to make it to the Final Four,” said Webb. “But we are going to keep focusing on the next game. Next game, Elite 8, we have to get that done and work our way to the championship game.”
“Expect the unexpected. That’s all I can say,” said Coggins. “I want to go all the way (to the finals). There’s no going backwards for me. I want to go forward.”
This senior is always playing some kind of game, be it basketball, soccer or volleyball. It’s volleyball that’s brought her the most high school success thus far, but she doesn’t have a clear-cut favorite. And she has a chance for another region championship and long state playoff run this spring on the Lady Warhawk soccer team.