Head Coach Tom Ray's prediction: "We'll bring home a trophy," and he may be right.

by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Senior Madison Kaplan is part of a senior class who has dominated the Northwest Oregon Conference on the volleyball court this season. Head Coach Tom Ray, though he intends to focus on a league championship first and foremost, believes he has a trophy team on his hands.All season long, Lions’ head coach Tom Ray has been adamant: take this one game at a time. And that can be hard, given the Lions are systematically drubbing opponents by that same mantra.

“One of our goals is to get better every time we step on the court,” said Ray. “No matter who the opponent is, we’ve got to keep getting better and better and better.”

No. 2 St. Helens smashed Sandy on Tuesday evening, running past the Pioneers by a score of 25-21, 25-9, 25-16 for their ninth consecutive victory. As of that match, the Lions had only dropped eight sets all season and only lost twice – to No. 5 Cleveland (14-3, 9-0 League) and Class 6A’s No. 8 Reynolds.

Up front, the Lions are downright scary. The duo of senior Gabby Susee and junior Taylor Albertson, both of whom stand over 6-foot-1, is enough to intimidate teams into changing their offensive strategies. Instead of hitting directly over the net, Liberty tried to chip the ball over the hands of Susee and Albertson in response to the constant threat of being blocked. It didn’t work, and the Falcons fell in four sets to St. Helens.

Against Sandy, it was more of the same. The Pioneers struggled to get the ball past St. Helens’ blockers, and several times opted to simply get out of the way of the powerful hits from Albertson and Susee, although in the second set, a strike from Susee connected with the face of Sandy senior setter McKenzie Nolin. After the match, Ray was still able to pick out a few mistakes he wanted to fix, but was confident enough in his squad to make a bold prediction.

"This is a trophy team, by far,” he said. “These guys will bring a trophy home. They’re not going to settle for anything less.”

Ray’s statement isn’t unfounded. The team’s 41-8 win-loss differential in sets this season is second only to No. 1 West Albany. The two teams lead No. 3 Wilsonville, who St. Helens beat 3-1 on Sept. 19, and seem to be destined for a meeting late in the playoffs.

Both squads have played top-10 teams from the 6A ranks, and both have found success. West Albany in particular has left little room for criticism in defeats of No. 1 Central Catholic and No. 4 Jesuit, who also account for both their losses.

by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Junior Taylor Albertson and teammate Gabby Susee hit hard enough that coach Tom Ray has to keep an eye on his hitters during practice.Above and beyond

The success St. Helens has had this season has gotten them not only the attention of the rest of the state, but respect as well. In fact, the Lions have gotten to the point where they are no longer simply reacting to what the opposition gives them, but dictating it as well. Being intentional about where a pass goes and running designed plays is something that most high school teams never accomplish.

“Depending on where the pass goes sets up where they set, and that’s exactly what college does,” said Ray.

The team has worked on getting the pass closer to the net when the setter makes the final pass to their hitters. Early in the first game with Sandy, the Lions struggled to find the sweet spot, but as the set wore on, they became more and more unstoppable.

“When (the setters) get that ball in where they can set back, middle, and if you set our middle (blockers), watch out,” said Ray with a laugh.

The power of the Lion hitters is enough that Ray keeps a wary eye on the locations of Albertson and Susee during practice so as to avoid being hit.

Adding to their college look, Ray made an adjustment on the defensive side that moved the middle blockers into the path of the Pioneer attack, and shifted the back line to better cover the floor. Sandy was never able to overcome the changes St. Helens made, and the Lions put the finishing touches on their ninth straight-sets victory this season.

Eyes on the prize

The level of dominance the Lions have had lately can make it difficult to focus on Ray’s number one goal of winning the league.

“It’s hard to hold the girls back,” he said. “We want to be league champs first. Once that’s taken care of, then we can start looking at the state thing. We need to take care of our league first. We want to beat every team.”

Even in the midst of league play, Ray can’t help but keep watch on the top of the Class 5A rankings. The top eight teams get a bi-week for the first round of the playoffs, which is something Ray wants to capture for his team. It looks like No. 1 West Albany might be too lofty to catch unless they lose, and so Ray has focused on who the Lions would face should they finish as the second seed – a second round match up with the winner of the No. 10 vs. the No. 23 teams. It’s next to impossible to guarantee who will finish in the lower reaches of the rankings, but regardless, Ray feels good about the things in store for the Lions.

“I hope we’re in the final with West Albany,” he said. “If anybody can block ‘em, we can.”by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - St. Helens volleyball players gather for a moment before the home match against Sandy on Oct. 8. The Lions swept Sandy in straight sets.

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