A victory in straight sets over Sherwood gives the Lions their first league championship in recent memory

by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - The St. Helens Lions celebrate in front of the student section after winning the Northwest Oregon Conference championship.For head coach Tom Ray and the Lady Lions, there are few sights sweeter than looking down on the Sherwood Bowmen. Such was the case Thursday evening, as St. Helens beat their nemesis in straight sets 25-20, 25-19, 25-18. The victory earned them not only a sweep of longtime rival Sherwood, but an elusive league championship as well.

“It's awesome, and we're going to be there next year,” said Ray. “It'll be an emotional night. I don't think I'm going to sleep.”

Perhaps because of how last season ended, with a tough loss to Sherwood on the road, it was fitting that the Lions should snatch a league title in such an environment. Earlier this season, St. Helens picked up the first win over Sherwood since the Bowmen entered the Northwest Oregon Conference, and on Thursday night, they picked up the last. Sherwood will be leaving for Class 6A after the school year concludes.

The value of the match for junior hitter Taylor Albertson, who picked up a number of key kills in the final set, was much more than the numbers on the scoreboard. It was a result of hard work and heart finally paying off.

“It's crazy,” she said. “(There's been) a lot of pressure on us because we're ranked so high and we've never been up there so much.”

The win, which is the Lions' third in a row, was enough to keep St. Helens ranked No. 3 in Class 5A. They sit just behind West Albany and Churchill, who are first and second respectively. In addition to picking up a huge win over their rivals, St. Helens finally broke through and ended a drought of more than 20 years between league championships.

To put things in perspective, the last time the Lions won a league title was long before Ray came to coach at St. Helens.

“You have to look back to '89 or '90,” said Ray. “We played St. Helens when Len (Robinson) and I were coaching at Rainier, and we lost to them, but we ended up doing better in state.”

On Thursday, bets were off and it was all about Sherwood.

As the match neared it's inevitable end, the Lions grew visibly more excited than normal. As crowd-favorite Corey West thrust a broom – this time a giant dust mop – into the air, Albertson threw down yet another kill and the Lions could smell victory, leading 22-18. At that point, St. Helens was all but unstoppable, scoring the next three points in quick succession and bringing the entire team to its' feet.

For a moment, the memory of the numerous dominant wins this season lay by the wayside.

“It's crazy beating Sherwood for the first time since Tom (Ray) has even been coaching,” said Albertson. “It's outstanding. It feels great.”

The Lions' string of victories has been nothing less than impressive. Only four matches have gone past three sets, with St. Helens winning all but one. Over all, the Lions have won 53 sets and lost just 11, something Albertson pointed out as being about heart, as well as technical ability.

“You really have to be in it. You have to be focused all the time, you have to want it,” she said. “You have to just come together as a team and be 'one' for the game, especially a game like this … it means so much.”

Now with the regular season behind them, St. Helens is free and clear to train their focus on what they've been aiming for from the very beginning: winning a state title.

“(We want it) really bad,” said Albertson. “It's been our goal for a couple years now.”

The Lions will have a few days off while the play-in round takes place before getting started with the 16-team OSAA bracket next weekend.

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