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St. Paul repeats as state 1A champions, beating Powder Valley in three straight sets in title match

INDEPENDENT PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Senior Erin Counts (right) embraces freshman Annabelle Davidson following the team's state championship victory. Counts is one of four seniors on this year's team, joined by Isabelle Wyss, Destiny Smith and Karlee Southerland.

REDMOND -- How do you follow up on a perfect season? For the returning members of the St. Paul High School volleyball program it was simply a matter of rolling up their sleeves, getting back to work and proving once again that the route to the 1A title runs through St. Paul.

The Buckaroos capped their 2019 season on Saturday, defeating the Powder Valley Badgers 3-0 (25-13, 25-14, 25-16) in the championship game of the 1A volleyball state championships at Ridgeview High School.

"This year I think was huge, because these girls had to push themselves to improve on so many levels," SPHS coach Lesli Hiller said. "A lot of the returning kids from last year did the same. Even though they were phenomenal last year, they pushed themselves to be even better this year."

The title game was a repeat of last year's championship, in which St. Paul defeated Powder Valley 3-1 to earn its first volleyball title in program history. Although the Bucks only needed three sets to defend their state title the second time around, Hiller said the final score was not an indication of an easy win by any means.

"The scores didn't reflect it, but there were a lot of long volleys and the point had to be earned," she said. "It's not like it was a bunch of aces and kills, it was a lot of effort on both team's parts, and we love playing teams like that."

Powder Valley (34-2, 11-0 Old Oregon League) was nearly unbeatable for the second straight season, with their only loss this year heading into the playoffs coming against 4A state playoff qualifier La Grande. The Badgers went 30-0 before falling to the Bucks last year and the two schools met in the 2019 basketball state championships as well, creating a fierce small school rivalry separated by more than 300 miles over the past two seasons.

"We couldn't wait to play them this year, because we love competition and we love playing at that level," Hiller said. "We're very happy to play them and we loved to play them even more this year."

The title match was the swan song for seniors Karlee Southerland, Isabelle Wyss, Destiny Smith and Erin Counts, who were joined by Jordan Caldwell as the returning core from last year's championship team. Each player of the quintet served a vital role on the Bucks' first state title run, prompting Hiller to name the group all co-captains heading into the 2019 season.

"We needed leadership from everybody," Hiller said. "Just to see our five captains lead this team right back to the final match and help the rest of the girls be comfortable and confident, and not be nervous, and be able to take it one point at a time regardless of the score and just own the score."

Wyss and Counts led the team on offense, putting up 18 and 10 kills, respectively. Southerland and Caldwell split duties setting up the team, combining for 31 assists in the title game. Smith led the team with 14 digs, while Wyss accounted for 11 more.

Following the contest, Wyss was named St. Paul's player of the game and was named to the all-tournament first team. The reigning 1A player of the year, Wyss is likely to repeat her honors this year as she concludes her St. Paul volleyball career.

"She's a phenomenal player," Hiller said. "She's always loved volleyball and dreamed of playing in college. We're all hoping she gets some good offers and gets to pick where she wants to go."

She was joined on the all-tournament first team by Counts, while Southerland was named to the second team.

Prior to the championship contest, the Bucks opened the quarterfinals on Friday morning with a 3-0 sweep (25-12, 25-11, 25-17) sweep of league rival Crosshill Christian. The Bucks punched their ticket to the championship later that evening with another 3-0 win (25-18, 25-17, 25-12) over Days Creek.

St. Paul finished its season with a 29-5 record, including 14-0 in the Casco League. St. Paul's lone in-state losses this year came against 2019 2A state champion Kennedy and 2018 2A state champion Portland Christian, each in tournament play. The other three losses came in the team's trip to Arizona in October for the NIKE Tournament of Champions.

Despite the loss of the team's four seniors, Hiller is looking forward to seeing what the team's returning players can do next year. Caldwell joins Paige Curtis and Mary Davidson as the team's returning juniors, while sophomore Ainsley Goughnour spent significant time on the back row this year.

The rest of the team — Payton Saucy, Siena Garstka, Halsie Hempfling and Anabelle Davidson — are all freshmen.

"We have a solid bench that didn't see a lot of time, but they're going to be really solid for us next year too, so we have a really good returning group," Hiller said.

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