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Buckaroos are excited for more competitive opponents this season after an undefeated run last year

INDEPENDENT PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Seniors Isabelle Wyss (left) and Destiny Smith (center) are two of the team captains for St. Paul volleyball this season.

After putting together a perfect season last year, going undefeated to win the Class 1A volleyball state championship, it only took one weekend for the St. Paul Buckaroos' win streak to come to a close.

After winning the final two games of its 2017 season, along with a 30-0 mark last year, the Bucks' built a 33-game streak of wins spanning parts of three seasons before falling 2-1 against their former 2A rival from Kennedy in the opening tournament of the season on Aug. 31.

While some may lament the end of an impressive run of sustained excellence, St. Paul coach Lesli Hiller wouldn't have it any other way. She was openly expecting for her girls to experience their first regular-season loss in quite some time.

"We went into this season knowing we wouldn't have a streak," Hiller said. "We're going to Arizona; you're going to be playing 6A schools from other states, we just knew going into it we wanted to play a competitive season."

Hiller was referring to the annual Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix, which St. Paul hasn't attended since 2014. The tournament is an intense gauntlet of teams from California, Arizona and others across the southwest. The last time the Bucks participated in the event, they came away with a 1-4 record.INDEPENDENT PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - SPHS senior Isabelle Wyss celebrates a point during a match last week

But the wins and losses aren't as valuable to Hiller as much as the experience. An unbeaten record against easy teams does little to prepare the Bucks for another state title run, so Hiller wants to see her team face a challenge, struggle and feel what it's like to play from behind.

Such was the case last week when St. Paul faced its toughest challenge of the season — back-to-back road games against top-10 opponents, followed by a slate of even more difficult teams at their home tournament on Saturday.

St. Paul opened the week with a 3-0 (25-13, 25-11, 25-20) win at No. 8 Crosshill Christian and followed with a 3-0 (25-14, 25-13, 25-20) win at No. 4 Perrydale.

"It was good to have a more competitive match," Hiller said following the win against Crosshill Christian on Sept. 17. "I think we were ready for that and excited for that, and after the first two sets, we got a little comfortable."

Against the Pirates on Sept. 19, both teams came into the contest with perfect league records, but the Bucks prevailed thanks to a solid team effort, Hiller said.

Isabelle Wyss led the team with 14 kills, many of which came off a game-high 17 assists from Karlee Southerland. Erin Counts led the team with 11 blocks, followed by six from Anabelle Davidson, while Jordan Caldwell and Mary Davidson each had five kills.

Moving on to the weekend tournament slate at home was even more daunting, going up against No. 3 Days Creek, along with a rematch against Perrydale followed by a semifinal loss to defending 2A State Champion Portland Christian.

"For the tournament, we had solid hitting from the entire team," Hiller wrote in her post-game follow-up. "Portland Christian is growing into a very solid team that is tough to beat. Throughout the day our team played strong and we really enjoyed the competition."

The two teams met earlier in the season-opening tournament in Mount Angel, where the Bucks came away with a 2-0 victory. This time, the Royals prevailed by a 2-1 margin (14-25, 25-21, 16-14) that saw St. Paul give up a 1-0 lead and fall in a decisive third set.

"It was a great match that was very close the last two sets," Hiller said.

Wyss and Counts led the team with 12 and seven kills, respectively, while Southerland, Wyss, Counts and Ainsley Goughnour combined to go 45-of-46 from the service line.

With the loss, No. 2 St. Paul (13-2, 5-0 Casco) looks to restart its next win streak with a home games this week gainst Falls City and C.S. Lewis.

"We're excited for this year," Hiller said. "We're excited to really play hard and work hard and get after it."

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