ATHENS - The Area 8-AAAA volleyball championship was played at Clarke Central High School on Saturday, but the road to the title clearly went through Rockdale County.
Heritage (38-8) captured its second straight Area 8-AAAA title, rallying from down 2-1 in the championship match to outlast county rival Rockdale (30-16) in a five-game thriller 19-25, 25-7, 20-25, 25-22, 15-13.
"It's very nice to repeat," Heritage coach David Buddenbaum said. "We had three goals this year. The first goal was to get a lot of wins, the second goal was to win area and the third goal is to advance at state as far as we can."
The one-two finish means both squads will host opening round matches in the Class AAAA state tournament Thursday. The Lady Patriots will get the No. 4 seed from 4-AAAA, while the Lady Bulldogs will face the No. 3 seed from 4-AAAA.
After the two squads split the first two games of the championship match, Rockdale appeared to have the momentum after a 25-20 victory in Game 3.
But Heritage displayed its battle-tested mettle in games four and five.
The Lady Patriots opened up a 4-0 lead in Game 4, getting two aces from Mikala Flonnoy and kills from Mikayla Charles and Arabi Unrami. Twelve points later, Heritage stretched its lead to 12-4 on a kill by Taylor Bailey.
The Lady Bulldogs rallied on Libby Bradford's service, scoring four straight points to close the deficit to 15-13.
Heritage's Flonnoy broke the momentum by scoring off a swing, and then Bailey added two big blocks to stretch the lead to 19-13.
Chelsea Nunn rallied Rockdale again with an ace, closing the gap to 23-21.
But Flonnoy and Charles closed out the game with kills to tie the match at two-all.
In Game 5, once again, the Lady Patriots seized control early, reeling off five straight points for a 6-1 lead. Charles had two kills during the run.
Ten points later, Bailey's kill gave Heritage its largest lead of the game at 12-5.
At that point, Lauren Aikens and Nunn took over for Rockdale.
Aikens had four kills and a block down the stretch as the Lady Bulldogs battled all the way back to tie the game at 13. Nunn served up five straight points.
But Charles stopped the Rockdale rally with a kill, putting the Lady Patriots a point away from the title at 14-13
Heritage clinched the championship on the next point when Rockdale's play was long.
"I think the reason why we won is we have a lot of experienced players," Buddenbaum said. "They (Rockdale) made some good runs at us, they were playing great defense. What I like about Rockdale is they don't let the ball touch the floor. They do an incredible job of keeping the ball up in the air, and that's the key.
"We played poorly on Thursday with a lot of service errors, but today we played the way we're supposed to play. We've done a really good job this year of understanding it's not over until it's over. They weren't stressed about losing Game 1, but they understood what it meant when it was Game 5."
Bailey paced the Lady Patriots with 17 kills and three blocks in the title match. She finished the day with a team-high 31 kills and six blocks.
Charles chipped 15 kills and 20 service in the championship and finished with 25 kills and 29 service points in three matches.
Olivia Wasdin added 13 services and 13 digs in the title match, while Rachel Jubran chipped in six kills and nine service points.
Heritage opened the day with a 25-18, 25-21 victory over Clarke Central and advanced to the title match with a 25-15, 25-15 victory over Rockdale.
The Lady Bulldogs beat Habersham Central 25-21, 25-19 in their first match. After falling to Heritage, Rockdale advanced to the championship with another victory over Habersham Central 25-19, 25-22.
"The girls played their hearts out. I couldn't be more proud of them," Rockdale coach Stephen Sansing. "When we went out and beat Habersham again (the second time), it gave us the confidence we needed in the championship match.
"Heritage just has a little more experience than we do. Their whole team is basically club (ball). The majority of mine, most of the starters, haven't even played club. There's just that little bit extra of knowing what to do in certain situations that goes along with that experience. They won. They are the better team, but it was phenomenal match."
Aikens finished with 60 kills in four matches for the Lady Bulldogs. Nunn chalked up 70 assists. Janess O'Kane had nine kills in the championship match.
Jeff Gillespie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.