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The Bucks go unbeaten in league for second year, claim volleyball title in three sets

INDEPENDENT PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - St. Paul senior Isabelle Wyss repeated as Casco League Player of the Year and was joined on the All-League First Team by teammates Karlee Southerland, Jordan Caldwell, and Erin Counts.

INDEPENDENCE – For the second consecutive year, the No. 3 St. Paul volleyball team found itself capturing a veritable treasure chest of awards following the conclusion of the Casco League Tournament.

Two-time league and tournament champions, two-time player of the year Isabelle Wyss, two-time coach of the year Lesli Hiller, four first team all-league selections and another unbeaten run through the league schedule in which the Bucks failed to drop a single set, let alone lose a game.

But for all the symmetry between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, this year's road to the league title was markedly different for the girls who defeated No. 5 Perrydale 3-0 (25-14, 25-21, 25-20) Saturday afternoon at Central High School.

"I think this one just means a lot, because every single season is something different," junior setter Jordan Caldwell said. "We work hard in different ways every season."

Last year's team featured six seniors who left gaping holes on the roster in both leadership and talent when they graduated in the spring.

Much of this season was spent incorporating new members into the varsity fold while simultaneously carrying the heavy mantle of being defending state champions.

Yet the Buckaroos did so with poise and tenacity, finishing the regular season with a 25-5 mark, including 14-0 against Casco opponents to bring their league record to 29-0 since returning to the 1A classification.

"It means a lot to us, because we've been working really hard to get here," senior libero Destiny Smith said. "With all the new people and all the seniors that we graduated, it's been really good. We're getting used to it, and they're improving so well, and we're improving as a team."

On paper St. Paul makes it look easy, ripping off victories as if they were days of the week on a calendar. But as the only conference that sent three teams to the quarterfinal tournament last year, and the only one this year to boast three teams ranked in the OSAA top six by the end of the season, the road to the Casco title was as challenging as it was rewarding.

The Bucks' biggest challenge to their crown was the team that owned the year before St. Paul returned to the Casco League — the Perrydale Pirates.

The Pirates finished fourth at last year's state tournament and built a 26-6 record coming into Saturday's league championship game. And while the Bucks once again came away with a three-game sweep, Perrydale made sure St. Paul had to earn every win.

"I thought they played really well," Smith said. "They were really scrappy."

The first set went relatively according to plan for the Bucks. After Perrydale scored the opening point, the Bucks went on a 5-0 run as senior setter Karlee Southerland set up outside hitter Erin Counts for a pair of kills sandwiched between a service ace of her own.

Perrydale rallied for three straight points to pull within 5-4, but St. Paul rallied to score seven straight and kept the Pirates at arm's length for the remainder, winning 25-14.

The second set appeared to be more of the same after St. Paul took a 4-0 lead, once again on the back of strong service from Southerland. But the Pirates countered by ripping off five straight points and won nine of the next 12 to take a 9-7 lead.

Much of the rally came by taking advantage of St. Paul errors combined with the roaming defense of 6-foot 3-inch junior Bailey Savage, who used her height to counter the strong hitting of Wyss.

"Bailey was definitely following our best hitter, so we had to think about where to set and how to find the kill on the court," Caldwell said.

With Wyss relatively neutralized, that left Southerland open to set up Counts, Smith, Mary Davidson and others to hit around Savage and find scoring opportunities of their own.

"I would say they definitely are our biggest competition in league," Smith said. "We have to work harder to get around the block and they have really good defense, so we have to work harder to find their holes on the court."

The Bucks went on an 8-0 run to hold a 15-9 advantage, but the Pirates clawed their way back to make it 19-18 before St. Paul scored six of the next eight to take the second set.

In the final set, neither team was able to pull away. Every time St. Paul went on a run, Perrydale would counter to tie the game or pull within a point. The two teams were knotted at 16-16 before the Bucks scored twice on a pair of Pirate shots that went long, followed by a kill from Wyss to go up 19-16. The two teams traded points before St. Paul ultimately put it away to claim victory.

Following the contest, Wyss was named Casco League player of the year for the second consecutive season, while Hiller repeated as coach of the year.

Wyss, Counts, Southerland and Caldwell comprised four of the six first team all-league nominees, while Smith rounded out the Bucks' award winners with a second team selection. Wyss, Counts and Caldwell were also named to the all-tournament team.

From here, the Bucks have a week to regroup. By winning the league title, the Bucks earned a first round bye in the state playoffs and will host the winner of No. 25 Paisley (14-8, 7-6 Mountain Valley) against No. 29 Jordan Valley (13-14, 5-2 High Desert).

That game is set for Saturday and the winner will advance to the double-elimination state quarterfinals held at Ridgeview High School in Redmond on Nov. 8-9.

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