Valley Catholic has the pieces to make a big state run

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Valley Catholic junior Lizzy Osborn earned Class 4A first-team all-state honors as a sophomore.

It didn't take long for the Valley Catholic volleyball program to quickly establish itself as a Class 4A linchpin.

In two years at the 4A level, the Valiants have placed at the state tournament twice: taking sixth in 2014 and fourth in '15. The adjustment to the Cowapa League went smoother than anyone could have hoped as Valley briskly became one of the conference's elite, placing second behind Banks in both seasons.

There's been no drop-off going from perennial 3A state title contender to 4A newbie. And, now that Valley's positioned itself to make another leap, the bar's been raised to another echelon. With maybe the best team head coach Becky Kemper has fielded in years — which is saying something considering the quality of talent that's come through the program — there is hope this season brings a long awaited state title banner back to Valley. The early returns have been nothing positive as Valley has swept its last six opponents en route to a 7-1 overall record, a 2-0 beginning in Cowapa and a No. 4 ranking in the latest 4A power rankings.

“This team will only go up from here,” said Valley Catholic senior captain Sarah Gram. “I see big things for us, especially, hopefully, a state championship and lots of exciting things this season. We might be the underdogs of the state's top four teams, but we can definitely do it. I love my team and I think we're going to do great. Last year we did well, getting fourth at state, but that's just even more motivation to get into the state championship match.”

“We're one big family and we've all played with each other before, and we're all best friends,” said Valley Catholic junior hitter Lizzy Osborn. “It all clicks really well.”

Head coach Becky Kemper said while a state championship is always the ultimate goal at Valley, winning a league title outright is first on the agenda. And, after possibly peaking a little too early last year, the veteran head coach wants to ensure Valley maximizes its abilities toward the tail end of the season, preferably at the 4A state tournament that takes place at Forest Grove from Nov. 4-6.

“We want to go for that state championship,” said Kemper. “We want to get to that state championship game and then just lay it all out there.”

Valley exorcised a big demon on Thursday went it swept Banks 25-18, 25-19 and 25-14, beating an archrival who once was the Valiants' biggest obstacle in the way of a Cowapa crown.

“I don't know if they ever beat us on the physically, but it was mostly a mental battle,” said Gram. “They're Banks. They're the big team. Now we know we're just as good as them and can play at that level.”

That distinction as Valley's toughest foe now falls at the feet of Tillamook, who is ranked third in the 4A power rankings just ahead of No. 4 Valley. The two powers will do battle on Sept. 27 at Valley with the winner getting a leg up in the league race. Against Astoria, Valley controlled the match from start to finish and won each of its three sets by double digits. The Valiants have the physical talent to achieve any of their goals, and now they just need to match their physical abilities to killer focus and intensity in order to stand atop Cowapa.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Valley Catholic junior Megan ODonnell is one of many Valiant hitters who can be featured in the Valley offense

“I don't think there's any team that we can sit back and relax for,” said Kemper. “Tillamook is strong and returns mostly everybody. Seaside returns a lot and Scappoose is better than they've been in the past.”

Osborn is an utter problem for any of Valley's opponents, a brutal hitter who can play in the middle and wreak havoc or shift outside and stuff balls through double teams on the left or right side of the floor.

“Lizzy just puts balls down,” said Gram with a smile. “She's the rally-ender. She's the girl you go to when you want her to swing away. And nine times out of the 10 it ends up on the other side of the court.”

Osbron earned first-team all-state honors last year as a sophomore and after an off-season of playing high level club is only better and more secure in her stature both in league and on the state stage. Kemper moved Osborn from middle blocker to outside hitter and while the transition isn't easy, Osborn found a good rhythm against Astoria and got her timing down around the net.

“My confidence is definitely higher than it's been the past couple of years,” said Osborn. “Knowing I'm an upperclassman and I have people around me who can help me achieve my goals and our team goals has been key.”

Osborn and senior outside hitter Regan Dean are Valley's two primary targets offensively, but Megan O'Donnell and Kayla Robbins can get going when they're set up consistently. If say, Dean or Osborn experiences an off night, then Valley can look to Robbins, O'Donnell, or freshmen Zoey VanVleet and Ellie Erwert. Offensive balance and even dispersal of the wealth could make the Valiants virtually unguarable with two stars in Osborn and Dean attracting so much defensive attention. Dean “caught fire” during Valley's run at the Southridge tournament on Sept. 3 according to Kemper and can be relied to hit the ball hard, but accurately.

“Our offense is our big strength,” said Gram. “We have a lot of big hitters and even the girls who aren't necessarily big hitters can put the ball away, which is really, really important.”

Gram also noted Valley's defense can't be overlooked. With senior libero Abby Groh, defensive specialist Daria Wonderlick, Dean upfront and Gram running down loose balls all around the court when she' snot setting up the offense, the Valiants can encompass the court with athletic bodies and quick reflexes.

“I think we have one of the best defenses in this area,” said Gram. “We all just go for the ball and we're all scrappy. Defense wins games. Even if you can't put the ball down, you can keep the ball up, which is most important. We talk about what we see, who's around us, where we are. We try to go for everything.”

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