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Cowgirls defeat Ashland in four sets, advance to state tournament where they will play Corvallis on Friday in Hillsboro

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Liz Barker goes up for one of her 10 kills as the Cowgirls defeated the Ashland Grizzlies in the first round of the state tournament. Crook County will face fourth ranked Corvallis on Friday in the state quarterfinals at Liberty High School in Hillsboro. The Crook County Cowgirls opened their state playoff match with Ashland in electric fashion, rolling out to a big lead as they advanced to the state volleyball tournament with a four-set 25-10, 25-13, 13-25, 25-16 victory over the Grizzlies Saturday afternoon in Prineville.

Although the Cowgirls were the favorites coming into the match, Ashland had given Crook County trouble in the regular season. The two teams met multiple times in tournament pool play, splitting sets each time. The Cowgirls won the one match that the two teams played in tournament bracket play, but even that meeting was close. So Crook County head coach Kristy Struck was pleased with how her team performed early in the set.

"It was nice to see them come out and play well from the beginning," said Struck. "We were playing together well as a team, passing well, hitting well and serving well. It was a pleasant surprise."

The Cowgirls rolled out to a 7-1 lead in the opening set and rolled to a 25-10 win. Crook County closed out the set on a kill by senior Lily Cooper.

After a slow start in the second set, the Cowgirls quickly came back to life. Ashland scored the first three points of the set before Crook County scored eight consecutive points behind the serving of libero Kacie Stafford.

Once in control of the set, the Cowgirls continued to extend their lead as they cruised to a 25-13 win, with Crook County closing out the set on a kill by sophomore Kendal Maycutt and a block by senior Kenna Woodward.

As good as the Cowgirls looked in the first two sets, they struggled in set three. After Crook County took a 1-0 lead, the Grizzlies quickly rebounded, closing out the set on a block by Amelia Evans.

"I wasn't nervous or upset," Struck said. "I just want them to be able to figure out a way to get out of difficult situations, and I feel like we don't have that yet. That is going to be an important building block for us moving forward, is figuring a way to get ourselves out of those tough tight spots."

However, Struck admitted that she had a stern talk with the team after the third set.

"A serious talk from Kristy really helped," senior defensive specialist Rebecca Cooper said following the match. "She told us what our mistakes were and what we needed to fix, and I feel like we started talking more, which really helped our game."

Crook County regrouped between the third and fourth set. Although they did not play as well as in the opening set, they corrected a number of errors. The set was tied eight times early on before the Cowgirls took the lead for good at 9-8 on an ace by Stafford.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Kendall Maycutt goes up for a shot against Ashland on Saturday. Maycutt had eight kills in the match as the Cowgirls defeated the Grizzlies in four sets to advance to the quarterfinals of the state tournament, which will be held Friday and Saturday at Liberty High School in Hillsboro. As in the second set, the Cowgirls closed things out with a block, this time by Liz Barker.

"It was nice to watch them start playing together again," Struck said of the fourth set. "Not falling all over each other and better communication. We were hitting better, and it really started to click again. When that happens for any team, it's a beautiful thing to watch."

The Cowgirls were able to win despite playing starting senior setter Anna Woodward as little as possible in the contest. Woodward had missed several practices with an illness, and Struck elected to rest her whenever possible.

Backup setter Jenny McKinnon filled in whenever Woodward was off the court, and the Cowboys didn't miss a beat. Using a balanced attack, the Cowgirls blasted 44 kills to just 23 for the Grizzlies.

Kenna Woodward led the Cowgirls in kills with 13, while junior Liz Barker had 10 kills. Lily Cooper and Maycutt each had eight.

The Grizzles were led by Evans with eight kills, while Makayla Miller pitched in with seven.

The Cowgirls went 81-88 from the service line for 92% serving, with four of those errors coming in the fourth set of the match. Stafford led the way from the service line, going 23 for 24 with four aces. Lily Cooper went 14 for 15 with one ace, while Stormie Camara was 11 for 12 with a pair of aces.

Stafford was all over the floor defensively, picking up 33 digs in the match, while Camara added 12 and Lily Cooper 10.

With the win, the Cowgirls improved to 20-8 on the year, while the Grizzlies dropped to 15-8. More importantly, the Cowgirls advanced to the state tournament once again. Last year was the first time since the Cowgirls won their first state championship in 2006 that the team failed to earn a trophy at the state tournament. This year's team is determined to change that.

"It's exciting to go back to the tournament, especially since it's our senior year," Lily Cooper said. "I'm really proud of my team for pulling it out in the end."

The Cowgirls will face No. 4 ranked Corvallis, 17-4, in the quarterfinals on Friday, Nov. 8, at Liberty High School in Hillsboro.

The Spartans are the defending state champions, so they will be a tough challenge for the Cowgirls. Corvallis knocked off St. Helens in straight sets, 25-14, 25-15, 25-13, in the opening round of the playoffs. Game time is scheduled for 1:15 p.m.

"Obviously our goal is to try to win state and to do our best," Lily Cooper said. "We need to try not to get down on ourselves like we did in that third set and just try to keep the momentum the whole time."

When asked what her goal for the team was, Struck had a terse response.

"Win," she said. "I would bet on this team every day."

"We obviously have to work on more communication and our passing because that is what happened in the third set is our passing started going downhill," she said. "So we are going to work on that and keeping the momentum as we play."

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