Lakeridge knocks off No. 1 Central Catholic to win its first volleyball state title

by: VERN UYETAKE - Saskia McNairy acknowledges the crowd as McKenna Moore raises the state championship trophy that the Lakeridge volleyball team won on Saturday at Liberty High School. The Pacers topped the No. 1 Rams in four sets, claiming the school's first volleyball championship.Heading into Saturday's state title match against Central Catholic, the Lakeridge volleyball team had already made history. The Pacers had put together their best regular season of all time and earned a share of the league title in the always-competitive Three Rivers League.

The team earned the No. 2 ranking in the state by the end of the season and didn't buckle under the pressure of that lofty standing, grinding out a pair of hard-fought wins over Clackamas and Roseburg to reach the championship match for the first time in school history.

Had the season ended with a thorough drubbing at the hands of the No. 1 Central Catholic Rams, it still would have been viewed as nothing less than a resounding success.

Lakeridge accomplished everything that it could have reasonably expected. But reason took a back seat at Liberty High School on Saturday.

The match featured the longest-ever set in an Oregon state title bout. It featured Lakeridge outscoring Central Catholic by an astounding margin of 29-9 during a stretch that lasted from midway through the third set until midway through the fourth set, one that effectively locked up the Pacers' victory. And it featured Lakeridge knocking off the Rams for a shocking, emotional 31-29, 23-25, 25-12, 25-22 victory, locking down the school's first volleyball state title.

“It means so much to all of us. I never would have expected this at the beginning of the year and I couldn't have asked for a better team,” libero Emily Scott said.

Central Catholic started the match with the confidence of a team that had easily dispatched the Pacers three short weeks ago at the West Linn Invitational.

“Honestly, that was the best thing that could have happened to us. We were kind of like a deer in the headlights and we got that out of our system,” coach Wendy Stammer said of the team's earlier loss to the Rams.

After Lakeridge won the first two points of the match, the Rams started to exert themselves, winning 15 of the next 20 points to build a 15-7 advantage.

The Pacers looked a bit out of sorts, committing five errors as they fell behind. Lakeridge trailed 17-10 before starting its rally in force. Lakeridge won nine of the next 11 points, getting a pair of kills from Saskia McNairy and one from McKenna Moore to knot the score at 19-19.

The teams then traded points with the Pacers taking a 22-21 advantage on a service winner by Moore.

Central Catholic would win the next three points to go up 24-22 before a service error gave the Pacers life.

A net violation by the Rams knotted the score at 24-24. The teams then went back and forth with Lakeridge fending off three set points. The Rams appeared to have won the set when a Maddie Marshall spike sailed long, but the referees determined that the ball had been tipped and awarded the point to the Pacers.

After Central Catholic went up 29-28, Lakeridge ran off three straight points, getting a well-placed pass from Malia Scott, a kill from McNairy and a service winner from Kacie Van Stiphout to give the marathon first set to the Pacers.

Lakeridge would build an 8-5 lead in the second set as well before the Rams stormed back. The second set featured multiple runs with the Rams going up 19-16 before a pair of McNairy kills tied things up again.

“I think by about midway through the second set we had a lot of confidence and we knew we had a chance to beat them,” Emily Scott said.

The Rams would go up 24-21 but a pair of errors nearly let the Pacers back into the contest. A service error from Lakeridge would ultimately give the close set to Central Catholic and the Rams had seemingly righted the ship.

But the Pacers refused to give an inch. The third set was nip and tuck early on with McNairy tallying three kills in Lakeridge's first six points.

“We just wanted to fight for it. We've been a great team all year bouncing back after losing a set,” McNairy said.

After the Rams cut the deficit 10-9, the entire face of the match shifted.

Marshall scored a big kill to earn a side-out and Emily Scott went back to serve. She came up with back-to-back service winners and then a kill from the back line to spark a four-point run.

A service error gave the ball back to the Rams who then had three errors and a net violation in another five-point spurt for the Pacers, who build a 20-10 lead.

Lakeridge cruised to a 25-12 victory, putting the team one set away from the championship.

While the Pacers' confidence was increasing exponentially with each point, the Rams were visibly rattled.

“We have great team chemistry and we're better when we're just having fun,” Marshall said.

After Central Catholic won the first two points of the fourth set, the Rams committed four straight hitting errors and the Pacers went on an 8-0 run to take command.

A kill and ace from McNairy allowed the lead to swell to 12-5, forcing a Central Catholic timeout.

Recognizing their backs were against the wall, the Rams came out with intensity and cut the lead to 14-11.

However, another hitting error and a pair of net violations led to another four-point spurt. The Rams countered with three consecutive kills from Whitney Turner.

The Pacers then received the benefit of a big call when a block that was initially ruled out by the linesman was overturned.

That led to three straight points from the Pacers and a 22-14 lead. Lakeridge could taste the championship but would have to fend off one final run.

Van Stiphout came up with a big kill to cap a long rally to make it 23-15 and a McNairy kill put the Pacers just one point away with a 24-17 lead.

But the Rams came up with the side-out and then reeled off four straight points to make it 24-22. Needing to make a play, the Pacers set McNairy and she came through with a resounding kill, locking down the championship and ending up at the bottom of a dog pile from the Pacer student section.

“I've never been that excited in my life,” McNairy said.

Perhaps more surprising than Lakeridge's win itself was how dominant it was in victory.

Lakeridge had a kill percentage of .166, compared to a shockingly low .065 for the Rams.

McNairy led all players with 24 kills, hitting at a .328 clip. The Rams committed 36 errors compared to 25 by the Pacers.

Emily Scott also led all players with a remarkable 31 digs to go along with four service winners.

“Emily's defense was a complete game-changer for us. What a rock star,” Stammer said.

Lakeridge earned its trip to the finals with wins over a pair of strong teams. First up was rival Clackamas, the only other team in the state besides Central Catholic with a win over the Pacers this year.

Lakeridge started its tournament run slowly, falling behind early to the Cavs and seeing a late run come up short as the team dropped the opening set 25-22.

But the Pacers responded quickly, taking a 19-12 lead and then fending off a Clackamas charge to tie the match with a 25-18 victory.

In the third set, Lakeridge pulled away on a run backed by strong serving from Malia Scott. The run staked the Pacers to an 18-13 lead and they cruised to a 25-16 win, getting more terrific defense from Emily Scott.

The Cavaliers played some of their best volleyball of the match in the fourth set but the Pacers had the answer and, again, built a small lead. The Pacers then consistently came up with side-outs to fend off a Cavs run and a kill from Marshall sealed the 25-20 victory.

“We were ready for it. We knew we could do it, having beaten them once before,” Marshall said.

In the semifinals, Lakeridge took on No. 3 Roseburg, a dangerous team that the Pacers hadn't seen much of this season.

The Indians were taken to four sets in the quarterfinals by West Linn and appeared ready to give Lakeridge a battle.

In a close first set, the Pacers pulled away down the stretch to win 25-21. But the Indians rallied back and tied the match with a 26-24 win in the second.

But, as would become a recurring theme for Lakeridge, the team got stronger as the match progressed. The Pacers quickly regained momentum and controlled the third set practically from start to finish, winning 25-11.

The Indians made it interesting in the fourth but the Pacers' poise allowed them to grind out a 25-22 win.

Lakeridge's championship was a historic win for the school and also one for the record books. The volleyball landscape in Oregon has been dominated by a similar cast of characters. For years the Mt. Hood Conference had a stranglehold on the sport with powerhouses from St. Mary's, Barlow and Gresham ruling the roost. In recent years, Central Catholic has been the pride of that conference and often the state, with West Linn and Jesuit also claiming multiple titles within the past decade.

That list now includes a Lakeridge team that had never made it to the finals before.

The Pacers will graduate five talented seniors in Moore, Malia Scott, McNairy, Marshall and Samantha Howley who were integral to the rise of Lakeridge volleyball in their years with the program.

But Van Stiphout, Emily Scott, Mia Berard and another talented group of younger players will be ready next fall for the team's state title defense.

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