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Underdog moniker may be unfair for this team

by: VERN UYETAKE - Lakeridge celebrates with the state tournament bracket and championship trophy after Saturday's victory.It's rare for a No. 2-ranked team in the state to ever be viewed as a monumental underdog in a particular contest but that's the feeling one had regarding the Pacers heading into Saturday's state title match against Central Catholic.

In fact, Lakeridge embraced that role and even relished it heading into the state tournament at Liberty High School. The Pacers played as a team with nothing to lose, constantly smiling and encouraging each other even in the face of adversity.

It wasn't a shock that Lakeridge advanced to the state title match. After all, the Pacers had lost just two matches all season and had rightly earned their favorable placement in the bracket.

But Central Catholic was a different kind of beast. The Rams had also lost just two matches all year, one to a dominant Washington prep school and the other to 5A state champion West Albany.

The Rams had also beaten Lakeridge handily just three weeks earlier and, according to the computers, had played a significantly harder schedule than the Pacers had. (Central Catholic's opponents this year had a .690 winning percentage compared to .563 for Lakeridge's.)

Not to mention that Central Catholic has been synonymous with volleyball dominance in recent years, racking up five state titles since 1997 and losing in the finals four times in that period.

Many people assumed that the real state title match occurred in the semifinals where Central Catholic knocked off Jesuit in a tremendous five-set battle, making Saturday's final a formality.

Prior to Lakeridge's first-ever appearance in the volleyball state title game, athletic director Ian Lamont spoke to the team and likened the team's approaching showdown to the biblical story of David and Goliath.

“He told us all we had to do was throw that stone,” middle blocker Saskia McNairy said.

In his most recent book, writer and outside-the-box thinker Malcolm Gladwell posits that, in the story of David and Goliath, David actually possesses far more advantages in the famous bout than he is given credit for.

And I wonder if likening the Pacers to David also fails to give this team enough credit. After all, that analogy would assume that Lakeridge's win was either divinely inspired or simply a lucky fluke and I, for one, am not willing to assert that God has a rooting interest in high school volleyball (even when a Catholic school is involved) or that the Pacers were not every bit as talented as the high-powered Rams.

I bought into the hype as well. I wasn't surprised when Central Catholic jumped out to a lead midway through the opening set. And even after Lakeridge pulled out a breathtakingly exciting 31-29 victory in that first set, I continued to wait for the other shoe to drop.

Central Catholic would knot the match, eking out a win in the second set and I noted that, to that point, the Pacers appeared to be the Rams' equal on the court.

Then Lakeridge completely shocked me. The Pacers pummeled the No. 1 team in the state in both the third and fourth sets. The Pacers outscored the Rams 17-4 to close out the third set, an almost unfathomable run against a team of that caliber.

Lakeridge then went on an 8-0 run early in the fourth set to take control of the match. What happened on Saturday night was no fluke. The Pacers were simply better.

Lakeridge's Wendy Stammer, one of the state's most respected coaches, had been touting this group of players since seniors McKenna Moore, Malia Scott, Saskia McNairy, Maddie Marshall and Samantha Howley were freshmen, not just for its level of talent but also for how well the players got along both on and off the court.

This season was somewhat of a perfect storm with those five players pairing with junior hitter Kacie Van Stiphout, sophomore libero Emily Scott, defensive and serving specialist Mia Berard and a strong supporting cast combining for what figured to be perhaps the best team in the school's history.

The Pacers put high expectations on themselves and lived up to them, never wavering in their resolve. While Lakeridge may not have possessed as much flash or big-match experience as Central Catholic or Jesuit this season, it's practically undeniable that the Pacers led the state in team chemistry.

Whether it was an encouraging pat on the back and smile to an individual following a miscue or players breaking into a goofy dance while referees deliberated over a call during a crucial point in a quarterfinal match, it was evident that the team simply enjoyed and had confidence in each other.

The Pacers rode that quiet confidence into uncharted territory for the program, ultimately breaking into one of the most homogeneous clubs in the state, Oregon big school state volleyball champions.

Since 1984, that list has only included teams from the Mt. Hood Conference along with Jesuit, West Linn, plus Ashland in 2005.

The Pacers' closeness was also evident in its reaction following McNairy's final resounding kill. Virtually every member of the team simultaneously broke into tears which didn't stop until long after the trophy ceremony. In 10 years I'm not sure I've seen a more emotional victory.

While the Pacers have no shortage of banners hanging in their gym, there is no doubt that, for a school that is reemerging as an athletic power on many fronts, this one will be special.




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