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Former Banks superintendent Jeff Leo is coaching the Vikes and has them off to a 4-3 start.

COURTESY PHOTO: BOBBY KIRKMAN - Members of the Forest Grove volleyball team celebrate a point during a Vikings game earlier this season. The Vikes are off to a 4-2 start and are aiming high this year.Things are looking up for Forest Grove volleyball.

After consecutive disappointing seasons, the Vikings are off to a 4-3 start and are 2-2 in Pacific Conference play, with wins already over Century and Glencoe.

First-year head coach Jeff Leo said he challenged the girls after taking the job last spring. It's been so far, so good for a group with lofty goals.

"It's going really well," Leo said. "I met with the girls last spring after I got the job and they kind of explained to me what they wanted and what they were kind of hoping for. I said, 'Well, I'm giving you a ton of opportunities in the summer, and we'll see how serious you are.'"

Since then, he said, he's seen the dedication and also the results with some impressive early-season wins.

"They all showed up in the summer and they put the time in," Leo said. "The practices are very competitive, and it's made for a good start."

Leo said this year's group is made up of a solid core of seniors, including Chloe Hefner, Kai and Jordan Ingram, Alison Vaandering, and Hannah Carlson. Additionally, he said the junior class is very competitive and is headlined by outside hitter Jaydn Puncochar, Nasya Rebb, and middle blockers Rory Fix and Aven Lieb, all of whom are contributing mightily early in the year.

The coach also said he's seen good things at the junior varsity level as well, and that will be vital in building the program going forward.

"I call it the rinse-and-repeat process, which involves getting really good at doing some simple things," Leo said. "We have a good core group of upperclassmen, but the juniors will need to replace those seniors when they graduate and our sophomores will come up. Then it's about solid youth programs, which we're starting more of in the area because that's lacking in Forest Grove right now."

COURTESY PHOTO: BOBBY KIRKMAN - Forest Grove junior Nasya Rebb goes low to dig a ball during a Vikings game earlier this season. Rebb will be one of numerous players new head coach Jeff Leo said will make a key contribution this season.Leo, who was the superintendent of schools in Banks prior to coming to Forest Grove — he worked and coached in the Knappa School District, along with in Arizona, prior to that — said he took the new position in order to get back to his roots teaching math and coaching. Having been an administrator for more than a decade, he said he missed coaching, and when the position at Forest Grove opened up, he jumped at the chance to again lead a team of student athletes.

"I really missed coaching varsity athletics," Leo said. "I used to coach volleyball, then basketball and baseball — now there's this opportunity, and I'm absolutely loving every single minute of this."

And he thinks they can compete.

Despite a 10-22 record over the last two seasons, Leo believes this year's team — while not likely ready to contend with the state's elite — is very capable of competing for a league title and making the state playoffs.

"Our team goal this year is to be in the mix for the conference title at the end of the season," Leo said. "We're putting ourselves in that position, but we haven't had a lot of adversity yet, so we'll see how we handle it.

"As a coach, you're always concerned with how your team will respond when things don't go according to planned."

The coach said that the strength of this year's team is definitely their depth and chemistry, and that their weakness — for lack of a better word — is their belief in themselves, due primarily to a recent lack of winning. They hope to change that as the season progresses, and with a little luck and a lot of hard work, inch closer to that pack of the state's best.

"I've seen some pretty good teams out there," Leo said. "Getting to that level isn't easy. Those six or seven elite 6A teams, and those six or seven elite teams that are in the 5A are kind of on that next level. The question we have to ask ourselves is, how do we get there?'"

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