JEFFERSON -- Jefferson girls volleyball coach Mike Paul admits he likes a good surprise.
He's gotten one this year with his current crop of Lady Dragons. With his top nine players all underclassmen, including two freshmen and three sophomores, few were expecting big things as they appeared to be in the midst of a rebuilding year.
Appearances are deceiving, however. Jefferson is currently ranked fourth in Class AA and takes a 25-6 record into a tri-match on Thursday at Habersham Central.
"It's been a pleasant surprise, really," Paul said. "Not because we didn't have talent, but because we are a very young team. But they have jelled nicely and really play well together."
They started the season looking like a young team dropping three of their first four matches. But the Lady Dragons would reel off seven straight sweeps and Paul said that's when he noticed a change.
They wouldn't lose again until falling to top-ranked Wesleyan and then to No. 3 Greater Atlanta Christian in an Area 6-AA quad-match. They were serving for the match against GAC but could not finish off the Lady Spartans in the third set.
"We found a good rotation and they really started playing with a lot more confidence," he said. "The GAC match showed them they could play with the top teams."
Last season Jefferson was led by Sara Wood, who finished with 500-plus kills, which was the seventh-best season all-time by a Georgia player in any classification.
This season, it has been a team affair. No one will be close to Wood's effort, but junior Grace Williamson (148 kills), sophomore and Lindsey Nilsen (130 kills), and freshman Abby Wood (132 kills) give Jefferson a triumvirate of weapons up front. Paige Watson and Madison Corbett have been solid table-setters with 488 combined assists.
But Paul said the real strength of the team is its defensive prowess. Williamson, Olivia Przybysz, and Wood each have over 100 digs. They set a team-record against GAC with 51 digs.
"We're not real tall but they are quick and it's hard to get balls past them," Paul said. "The defense is what has been the most impressive part of the team right now."
The Lady Dragons will get another shot at making a run for the top spot in Area 6-AA when they travel to Wesleyan on Tuesday in the final Area 6-AA quad-match of the season.
Paul knows a solid finish to the season will help go a long way to getting a favorable draw in the playoffs. With just four teams in 6-AA, they will automatically advance to the playoffs. The question is, which seed.
Last year they lost two late matches to drop to fourth and were knocked out in the first round. Jefferson has advanced past the first round just once, in 2011, and never past the second round.
"A similar position to last year and we lost to Rabun County and that cost us so we're hoping to finish no worse than the third seed this year," he said. "But we can definitely compete with GAC and we played Wesleyan pretty tough so we still have a chance. We just need to avoid the fourth seed.
"But no matter what happens the rest of the season, this has been a fun team to be around and watch. They never quit."