St. Paul on a roll to start season
While some Class 1A volleyball teams had already played upward of a dozen games, St. Paul entered last week with just three contests under its belt. All three were lopsided victories against overmatched Casco League opponents as the Bucks have returned to their traditional conference after a successful run in perhaps the state's best league at the 2A level.
St. Paul was understandably eager to test itself, first against its top competition, Crosshill Christian and Perrydale, for the league crown, and then in the team's first tournament of the season Saturday in Mount Angel.
The Bucks cleared the first two hurdles with relative ease, getting little resistance from the Eagles in a 3-0 home win Sept 11 before sweeping the Pirates 25-15, 25-19, 25-21 on the road Sept. 13.
Facing even better competition Saturday, St. Paul rose to the occasion with five victories to earn the team title at former 2A Tri-River Conference rival Kennedy's Oktoberfest Tournament.
The key to SPHS coach Lesli Hiller's plan was composure.
"We tried to stay really calm," junior Isabelle Wyss said. "At times we got out of it, but we just made sure we kept each other sane and kept it going."
The Bucks couldn't have asked for a better start to their home contest versus Crosshill, as junior setter Karley Southerland served the first 20 points of the opening set.
"The ref turned to me and said, 'I'm not going to let her get to 25,'" Hiller said. "All three games that night were like that. She is a phenomenal server."
St. Paul did not record a service error as a team and rolled to a 25-13, 25-11, 25-10 victory.
"We had good rhythm," Hiller said. "We just played our game and focused on consistency and not letting down at all."
Although Perrydale presented a much tougher challenge, the Bucks built early leads in the first two sets and were steady down the stretch to close both of them out. The Pirates stayed closer in the third, pulling level at 11-11, but the Bucks answered with a 6-1 run and never looked back.
The game did feature numerous long rallies, many of which were extended by libero Emma Connor, who kept the Bucks in the point with diving saves on several occasions. Hiller said that each time Connor laid out to reach a ball it helped the rest of the team refocus and improve its play. Erin Counts was a force at the net, too, notching 10 blocks, including three for kills.
"We've worked really hard on movement and making sure we're reading the other team," Hiller said.
The team's passing was excellent all night, allowing the Bucks to keep the pressure on Perrydale (13-3, 4-1 Casco) and Wyss led the team with 12 kills.
"We definitely work on passing a lot in practice to make sure we are familiar with each other in the back row," Wyss said. "We just work together really well and that's what we've worked on all year. It's starting to show in games."
St. Paul picked up where it left off Saturday, opening the Oktoberfest Tournament with a 21-12, 21-5 victory over Bonanza to kick off pool play. The Bucks then edged Oakridge 21-19, 22-20 and split with King's Way, Wash., 16-21 and 21-15.
Hiller's squad faced Union in the tournament semifinals, winning 25-11, 25-18 to set up a rematch in the final versus King's Way, which downed tournament host Kennedy in the other semifinal.
St. Paul got the last laugh, though, with a 25-12, 23-25, 15-13 victory.
"We had very strong competition and held our composure when the games were close," Hiller said.
Offensively, Wyss continued to pace the Bucks, slamming 46 kills in five games. Counts also kept up her strong play at the net, registering 13 blocks to go along with 27 kills and six aces for the tournament.
Hiller said she has been especially pleased with her setters, Southerland and Jordan Caldwell, so far this year. Southerland dished out 51 assists at the tournament and hit nine aces, with Caldwell totaling 48 assists and nine kills.
"We're getting to where we're setting up every ball that comes over in some way," Hiller said. "If Karley has to pass it, Jordan will set it up or vice versa, which helps a lot."
Hiller added that both players have become especially good at saving passes that go into the net, which often catches the other team off guard.
"It's a lot of skills that they've learned over the years that are coming together now," Hiller said.
St. Paul (7-0, 5-0 Casco League), which rose to No. 2 in the 1A rankings, will play C.S. Lewis Academy at home Thursday before hosting its own tournament Saturday. The Bucks will tip off the event with a contest versus former Tri-River rival Central Linn at 9 a.m.