Banks volleyball hunting for its fifth straight state tournament appearance

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: ZACK PALMER - Banks volleyball players, including sophomore Megan Bunn (center), huddle before a match at last year's Class 4A state tournament at Lane Community College in Eugene. In the past three volleyball seasons, Banks has gone to the Class 4A state tournament every year. The Lady Braves have never finished worse than third, and never better than second.

While that streak is undeniably impressive, the Braves have annually missed out on hoisting a state championship trophy, and the starring villain has been Crook County, the seven-time reigning state champions.

In 2010, the Cowgirls beat Banks in the state finals, and in 2011 it was in the semifinals. Last year the two teams didn’t meet head-to-head at the tournament, but that didn’t stop Crook County from storming to yet another state title.

When Banks coach Suzanne Alley’s phone rang this summer asking if she would bring her team down to Prineville for early-season matches against both Crook County and Madras, her answer was swift and decisive.

“You can’t be the best unless you beat the best, and Crook County is the best team in the state,” Alley said. “They really wanted us to come and I think it will be good for our kids. It will be fun to see how they react — will they shrink from the competition or rise to the challenge?”

The team that Banks takes down to Prineville this week will bear only a passing resemblance to the team that finished third at last year’s state tourney. Gone are pivotal seniors Kaylin Vandomelen, Samantha Duyck, Aubrey Rue and Lexi Chung, but in their places are a number of experienced contributors.

Chief among them will be sophomores Megan Bunn and MaKenna Partain. Bunn, a 5-foot-11 middle blocker, was a first team all-league selection last year, and Partain, a 5-10 outside hitter, was an honorable mention pick. Both girls played important roles on last year’s team, and they will be expected to contribute heavily again in 2013.

“They’re pretty dominant hitters,” Alley said. “They’re both hitting really well right now.”

Senior Molly Hammond will hit on the right side, opposite of Partain, while junior Hannah Vandomelen and freshman Mary Schorn will also see some time as outside hitters. Junior Tori Schmidlin will play alongside Bunn as a middle blocker, and 6-1 sophomore Nikayla Doane will also rotate in at the net.

Junior Alyssa Chung will take over setting duties after an impressive summer.

“She’s doing a great job setting,” Alley said. “She worked really hard in the offseason. She’s spreading the ball around but she’s being smart about it.”

Senior Taylor Herb will step in as the Lady Braves’ libero, while JoJo Wren and Vandomelen will also rotate in as defenive specialists.

“This is a really close team,” Alley said. “They’ve played a lot together. They’re familiar with each other and playing well together.”

While matches against Crook County, Madras and Cowapa League rival Astoria will certainly be a barometer of their success, the Lady Braves are taking the long view of the season rather than the short view.

“Our theme this year is: come in every day and bust your butt and always ask for one more,” Alley said. “The only player you need to be better than is the player you were yesterday.”

Forest Grove Vikings

After leading the Forest Grove volleyball program to its first state playoff appearance since 2005, second-year coach Nicole Miles is hoping the experience will rub off on the team’s nine returning players.

Forest Grove finished tied for sixth in the Pacific Conference last year but won a play-in match against Lincoln to advance to the Class 6A state playoffs, eventually losing in three sets to Roseburg.

“I think breaking through that postseason barrier and really coming together for that play-in game was a huge step in the right direction,” Miles said. “It showed them that all the hard work and studying film and prepping paid off. Now it’s about building on that and knowing that we can compete with other schools and make it past the league season.”

The Lady Vikings will rely on three seniors this year, starting with middle blocker Shelby Turner-Thurman and outside hitter Mary Hutchins, both honorable mention all-league selections a year ago. Hutchins will be joined by junior Bryanna Hanson on the opposite side.

“They’re both going to be really big offensive threats,” Miles said. “They have so much power and a lot of talent.”

Senior Amber Cole will step in as the team’s setter.

“She’s going to distribute the ball well for us,” Miles said.

When it’s all said and done, Miles hopes that last season’s breakthrough inspires this year’s team.

“I think having that taste of success last year has made them hungry,” she said. “Every time they step on the court they’re looking to improve themselves somehow.”

Gaston Greyhounds

Gaston finished fifth in the Northwest League last season (7-13 overall, 6-5 league) and missed the Class 2A state playoffs following a three-set loss to Vernonia in the league playoffs.

The Greyhounds are off to a 2-5 start so far this season.

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