After a heartbreaking end to a great 2021 season, North Clackamas Christian is slowly walking the road to redemption.

PMG PHOTO: ANDY DIECKHOFF - North Clackamas Christian senior Makayla Ferguson (13) puts the ball over the net during the Saints' three-set win over Willamette Valley Christian on Tuesday, Aug. 30, at North Clackamas Christian School in Oregon City, Oregon.

The so-called "road to redemption" is a common theme in sports. For the North Clackamas Christian volleyball team, these patient Saints are more focused on the road than the redemption.

A year ago, North Clackamas Christian was the top team in Class 1A for much of the season, longer than any other program at that level. That translated into a No. 1 seed in the state playoffs and a chance to host games up through the quarterfinal round.

Unfortunately for the Saints, they never made it past the quarterfinals. After taking the first two sets, NCCS looked well on its way to Redmond, where the 1A state volleyball championships were to be held. However, Crane flipped the game on its head, winning the next two sets to force a fifth-set tiebreak — which the No. 8 seed won 15-9.

Suddenly and unceremoniously, the top team in the state was out. The Saints had won 25 games on the season, and its four losses all came against schools that reached the state semifinals (Gaston in Class 2A; Damascus Christian, St. Paul and Crane in 1A).

Thankfully for NCCS head coach Grant Nelson, most of his team was set to come back. The 2021 squad featured just two seniors, one a starter, and so he knew that the 2022 team could be just as special — maybe more so.

This year's nine-person team features six seniors, including captains Hannah Stark and Kali Dransfeldt. Along with the middle blocker Stark and outside hitter Dransfeldt, the other seniors include fellow hitter Ashlyn Watt, defensive specialist Emmi Kerekffy, middle blocker Makayla Ferguson and outside hitter Kiki Hayward. There's also a junior and two sophomores on the roster.

"I'm a little bit spoiled," said Nelson, noting that he's able to work on more advanced technical aspects of the game with this experienced group. "We'll never be perfect at the basics, but (the players) know what we're trying to do — so we can really be nitpicky about what we need to do better."

It's not just their advanced skills that make North Clackamas Christian such a dangerous team in Class 1A. It's also about their camaraderie and communication.

PMG PHOTO: ANDY DIECKHOFF - Ashlyn Watt, one of six seniors on the North Clackamas Christian volleyball team, gets ready to serve during the Saints' Aug. 30 win over Willamette Valley Christian.

The team has started out 5-0 on the young fall season, and NCCS has yet to drop a set this year. In the Saints' home opener Tuesday, Aug. 30, they cruised to a 25-4, 25-7, 25-9 win over Willamette Valley Christian. In that match, the team looked every bit the part of a state title contender; they executed well and communicated even better.

"Communication is the biggest aspect of the game that can really differentiate one team from another," said Dransfeldt, one of the senior captains of the team. "Talking, communicating — even when the (other) team may not be at the same level — keeping that communication. Talking to each other and being supportive is so underrated. It helps so much."

"I'm so grateful that we have so many seniors that are so strong this year," Dransfeldt continued. "We're all loud, and we all have good energy. It's also about bringing that to the younger players, the underclassmen, and showing them good leadership."

Stark, the other captain, noted that she has been playing with some of her fellow seniors since the third or fourth grade. However, in true team-captain spirit, she also was quick to give praise to the younger members of the program.

"It's really fun," Stark said, "but then you think about the people after us. They're going to have a whole new team, but I'm really confident in the fact that we have a good JV team."

Nelson echoed those sentiments when talking about the next wave of talent coming up at NCCS. He also pointed out that with such a senior-heavy varsity team, many talented and deserving JV players are simply having to wait their turn. Only one player, sophomore Bekah Neely, was called up from last year's JV team; there's just not room on the roster for all the talent the school boasts.

Still, the future is a long way off. This year, the returning senior Saints have come marching in, and North Clackamas Christian appears to be on a marching path through the 1A ranks. However, even with the fast start to the season, the Saints are taking it slow when it comes to reaching their final destination.

"We haven't exactly talked about (a specific goal for this season)," said Nelson, playing somewhat coy. "We were 25-4 last year, ranked No. 1 in the state longer than anyone else and I've got six of my top seven kids back. I think everybody kind of knows without saying it."

"There's going to be a handful of teams (in Class 1A) that are going to be super competitive," he added. "I think we have as good a chance as anybody."

In order to avoid another speed bump in the road to the state championship — a trophy the school has never hoisted — the Saints will need to stay positive, stay communicative and, most of all, stay focused on the task at hand.

"We just really need to keep up our energy," Stark said. "That's the biggest problem with our team — it's hard to keep up energy when you're down."

PMG PHOTO: ANDY DIECKHOFF - Senior captains Hannah Stark (back, center right) and Kali Dransfeldt (back, far right) are looking to lead the Saints this season and keeping the team's communication level high.

Stark sees it as her responsibility to keep the energy level high, as well as the team's spirits at large.

"I need to be the one to keep up the energy, and just be like, 'It's OK. Let it go. It doesn't matter,'" she said, "Not exactly the 'role model' — because everyone's my age — but kind of like the role model of the team."

"We kind of lose our groove," the senior said. "Then, we just don't really talk to each other — and we start losing the trust (in each other). I think it's a lot better this year. We've been working on it."

With a veteran team full of seniors and promising younger players, all of whom had front-row seats for the heartbreak in 2021, don't expect this group to get complacent. Don't expect them to get ahead of themselves, either. After last year, North Clackamas Christian knows all too well that 25 wins and a No. 1 ranking mean absolutely nothing once the girls step onto the court.

"Last year, being ranked No. 1 a lot was really fun," admitted Nelson, before a quick turn. "This year, I don't think anybody's going to care. I don't think we're going to look at the rankings — we're just going to look at the results."

So, for now, the Saints will patiently play their best night in and night out. And while the road they're walking may eventually lead to redemption, North Clackamas Christian is just trying to enjoy the ride.

"We get down on ourselves a lot, I can't say it enough. And we just can't," Stark said. "We've got to let it go and keep playing our hearts out — just play the sport we love."

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