Valiant volleyball breaks through glass ceiling, wins state
The night before the biggest volleyball match of her life, Valley Catholic senior Kayla Robbins had one of those vivid dreams she could've sworn was real.
In the vision, Robbins and her Valiant teammates rolled to a convincing, hassle-free three-set sweep of Cottage Grove, ripping off their best match of the season en route to a Class 4A state championship.
When Robbins and company woke up on Nov. 3 the reality was much starker. The Lions were clearly championship worthy, winning the third set after splitting the first two with Valley to take a 2-1 lead. Begrudgingly, as her team took the floor for the fourth set, Valley head coach Becky Kemper began rehearsing her glass-half-full, second-place speech, a talk all too familiar for the wildly popular skipper.
Yet, where this Valiant team varied from the past squads that were supremely talented but came up short in the title bout, was its mental toughness. Fighting through the ringer of two must-win sets, including a fisticuffs fifth set, was doable because of the work Valley put into hardening its cerebral fortitude.
And with Robbins leading the way, the Valiants got off the canvas, taking the white-knuckle fourth set 25-22 and polishing off a 15-11 fifth setter to win the 4A state championship at Forest Grove High School.
Maybe Robbins' dream was a premonition, just delayed a bit longer than the senior would've like. Maybe her subconscious was preparing her and comrades for battle after paying so much mind to overcoming mental hurdles and breaking through barriers together.
Either way, Valley is, at last, state champions.
"Most of my dreams come true and this truly is a dream come true," Robbins said with a smile. "I'm on cloud nine right now. We knew how to come back against Cottage Grove. We knew what we had to do to get there. We kept our cool and stayed cool in those tough points."
As Robbins skied for the game-winning kill and slammed off a Cottage Grove block for the 15th and final point, the sense of relief was widespread. It was Robbins' 42nd kill of the match and 92nd swing of the game, a crazy workload for the workhorse outside hitter and only senior on the Valiant roster. But the monkey was off Valley's back. The six Valiant players on the court ran to the middle and collapsed in each other's arms as Kemper slowly let herself drop the court on the sideline in exaltation.
"There were just tears of joy," Valley Catholic junior Haley Gentry said. "We've wanted this for so long. We've been so close for so many years. We get along so well and just have such great team chemistry. We never get mad each other. If somebody's struggling we pick each other up. We're always there for each other. We were so persistent and could overcome any challenge we faced."
From the first day of practice, Kemper and the Valiants wrote "Win State" as their top goal on the whiteboard. And when asked by outsiders about expectations, Valley never once shied away from the microphone or hid behind "coach speak." Despite losing three big-time seniors, including all-state star Lizzy Osborn off last year's state runner-up squad, the bar was set at a state title.
"We never doubted ourselves," Valley Catholic junior Zoey Van Vleet said. "We came in knowing we were going to win and we were going to fight for it no matter what."
Kemper was a state champion as a player but achingly hadn't captured one in her 25 years as a coach despite roaring success and 12 straight elite eight appearances. But for Kemper, the crowning moment of an illustrious career wasn't about her.
"I wanted it for the girls so much, I've always wanted it for my teams because I feel like my teams deserve it," Kemper said. "I want them to walk away from this knowing they'll get to tell their kids about winning a state championship. I still tell my kids about the state championship I won. It's a cool memory and this team will always be linked together because of that. This was a culmination of the programs and the alumni before us that have built this program up to this point."
Kemper is a player's coach, the one who believed in her team more than anybody else and poured enthusiasm and positivity into a group. The players said Kemper knew when to push when to pull back, but she always kept it light and vibrant.
"It's one thousand times more special knowing we did this for her," Gentry said. "She gives everything to this team. She dedicates all of her time and energy for us. She's always laughing with us. And with our team chemistry, she's a part of it, and so are all of our coaches. They challenge us in practice, but we also have fun. I can't think of a practice or a game that I didn't enjoy."
Off the court, Valley read "Mind's Gym: An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence" by Gary Mack, a book dedicated to helping athletes deal with competitive pressure. The Valiants invested themselves in visualization more so than any of Kemper's other teams over the years. It wasn't all talk, either. Valley owned its destiny away from the floor, something Kemper could see as the Valiants forged through the fourth set of the state title and put themselves in the winner's circle in the fifth. Sophomore Abby Rewers went on a big serving run in the fourth set that kept Valley in the Lions' hip pocket. After missing four serves which gave Cottage Grove four free points in the third set Valiants' didn't miss a serve the rest of the match, keeping the ball in play the rest of the way.
In the fifth, Valley jumped out to a 5-0 lead with three kills from Robbins and a big towering spike from Gretchen Kibbe, all off passes from setter Allie Merz. Cottage Grove evened the score a 7-7, but Robbins banged home another kill and scored a deep shot from the back row.
"We worked so hard the entire season, we couldn't let it go," Gentry said. "We found the strength to push through."
Yet, the Lions kept coming, cutting Valley's lead to 11-9.
Sophomore Madeline Klopcic blocked a Lion attack at the net to stop the bleeding and Cottage Grove made a trio of errors late before Robbins' match ender. When the Lions went on their five- and six-point runs, Valley didn't go in the ditch. The Valiants hung tough and stayed out of the mental lows with a level-headed mentality.
"They learned how to fight through adversity and struggle and pick each other up," Kemper said. "I knew once we won that fourth set it was going to carry over to the fifth."
Robbins was named Player of the Match and the only Valiant with double-figure kills. Defensively, Valley was great as Van Vleet (18 digs), Robbins (17 digs) and Merz (14 digs) kept Cottage Grove in check. Rewers and Caitlin O'Kief both finished with double-digit digs as well. Merz, one of the tallest players on the court, had a match-high 57 assists. Merz and Robbins were both all-tournament. Klopcic was second-team all-tourney.