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The Buckaroos are eager to get back on the court after a successful summer season

WOODBURN INDEPENDENT PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Reigning Casco League Player of the Year Isabelle Wyss, a senior, is one of six returners from last year's state champion St. Paul volleyball team.

The summer volleyball season is a bit of a chaotic mishmash of players. Between outside commitments to other sports, work, vacations and a variety of other obstacles, coordinating a full team event is sometimes like herding cats.

But St. Paul High School coach Leslie Hiller uses that disorder to her advantage, allowing her to simulate the unplanned bedlam that can and will pop up throughout the regular season.

"It's good because some of the younger kids get to fill in and you get to see who can play at that level and who can't," she said. "We've pretty much had eight or nine (kids) at each game, but it's been a different eight or nine."

The Buckaroos have been playing twice weekly at McKay High School in Salem throughout the month of July, taking turns each Tuesday and Thursday against various mid-valley teams such as Kennedy, North Salem, Country Christian, Dallas, Cascade and others.

As a 1A school, the Bucks are among the smallest programs in attendance each night. But as the defending state champions in their classification, their goal is to hang with the best of them, and playing summer games against 3A, 4A, 5A and 6A schools is a great opportunity to find out if the next generation of players are ready to compete at the varsity level.

"The biggest thing I look at summer league for is to see what younger players can play at that speed," Hiller said. "The varsity is a lot faster. You can be the star on a JV team, then move up to varsity and can't keep up with the speed. It's nice to see if those kids can rise up and play at that speed, or if they need another year to play at JV and get quicker."

St. Paul returns a strong starting core that includes Casco League player of the year Isabelle Wyss, along with first team middle blocker Erin Counts and second team setter Karlee Southerland.

Along with fellow senior Destiny Smith and junior Jordan Caldwell, the Bucks have all the right pieces to once again contend for a state championship.

But the team didn't put up a perfect 30-0 season last year on the strength of one or two players. The Bucks were solid up and down the roster and Hiller is looking forward to seeing which players are on the fast track toward joining the varsity holdovers this fall.

"I think we lost a lot of defense, so that's going to be our big focus," she said. "A lot of kids started summer ball playing right where they were at the end of last year. They're playing up to speed and haven't missed a beat at all."

Wyss – the team's dynamic, high-flying outside hitter – often steals the show with powerful shots that are as hard to defend as they are hit. But those kills are the byproduct of the Bucks' successful team play, led by back row defenders that get the ball to setters, who deftly position the ball for the perfect kill.

"The reason (Wyss is) able to be as amazing as she is — and Erin is as amazing as she is — is because the setters just really give everything they got to their hitters to make sure it's right where that hitter wants it," Hiller said. "They're just phenomenal setters. I really hope to see all four of these seniors go on to play college ball. I just think those five returning kids (including Caldwell) are at the college level."

As the end of July looms, Hiller will see the rest of the team return, giving her a full squad to work with this week when the Bucks conclude their summer league schedule with a championship tournament at McKay.

From there, the team has seven days off for moratorium week before getting started with camps and practice in August, all leading up to the team's annual alumni game to kick off the season on Aug. 29.

"The kids coming in are excited to be a part of that state championship culture and see how far we go this far as well," Hiller said. "Some of the kids coming up are going to be a big surprise for people too."

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