Tigers drop five-set thriller to lower-seeded Sprague on Wednesday to end 2021 season

PMG PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - A Tiger libero returns a serve during Newberg's five-set loss in the first round of 6A volleyball playoffs Wednesday at home.

It was a season of success and, at times, dominance for No. 11-ranked Newberg High School volleyball. The Tigers went 18-5 including a 9-3 record in league play. That set up a playoff matchup with No. 22 Sprague, which ended in an emotional upset loss for Newberg in five sets Oct. 27 at home.

Sometimes, all the joy of a winning season can disappear in the blink of an eye. For the upstart Tigers, those shocking seconds came after a competitive and, at times, thrilling match against the Olympians.

"Both teams competed at a high level," NHS coach Thomas Salness said. "Anyone who's leaving this gym tonight can see that two teams went to war and battled. It was fun volleyball. They're a great team, we're a great team, and I think it was about which team made the least amount of errors at the right time."PMG PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - Junior outside hitter Kara Richman reflects on the Tigers' loss to the Olympians.

Newberg took a 16-11 lead in the first set, led by the powerful play of junior outside hitter Sophia Gregoire-Salagean (an Oregon commit). The Tigers won the first frame of play 25-16 and appeared to have all the momentum on their side.

But things shifted in the second set as Sprague's defense tightened up and its offense executed with near flawless efficiency. The Olympians took a 9-3 lead early in the set and maintained it throughout, winning 25-17 to knot the match at one set apiece.PMG PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - NHS coach Thomas Salness instructs his player during the heat of the battle Wednesday evening.

Sprague maintained its sound play in the third set, leading 10-5 before a timeout by Salness. The wheels began to fall off for Newberg as it committed a number of unforced errors and couldn't counter Sprague's speed and size. Sprague took the set 25-12 and a 2-1 advantage.

Newberg's talent and grit showed itself in the fourth set, though, as a 14-11 lead sparked raucous cheers from a packed Tigers student section. It remained close down the stretch, keeping those fans on edge, and Newberg ultimately prevailed, 25-22, to force a fifth and deciding set.PMG PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - Tiger players celebrate a particularly tough point in the fourth set of the match.

Sprague tightened back up, made the right plays in key moments, and took the final set, 15-10, to earn the upset.

"For a lot of our kids and obviously their kids as well, it was the first time we've had playoffs in a while," Salness said. "It's a new environment, and sometimes that adds into your play. It adds to the mental aspect of the game where you're thinking even more about each play. The best part about this, though, is it's a lesson for us. We know how it feels to lose a high-pressure game like this, and we don't want to lose like this again. We'll be ready for next year."PMG PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - Tiger fans, dressed appropriately in an array of sports attire, cheered on their team.

Tears flowed and plenty of hugs were exchanged as the Tigers' season came to an unexpected end. Newberg graduates four seniors: Olivia Frey, Emma Vaughn, Alexa Beaudry and Jordan Kersjes. The lion's share of the Tigers' contributors will return next season, though, led by Gregoire-Salagean.

"My first year as a varsity coach, I couldn't ask for a more solid group of kids," Salness said. "How hard they work, how they come in every day. I don't think there was a practice where I was like, 'guys, that practice was not it.' It's a long season to achieve that and continue to push each other to get better. The fact I had a team where everyone contributes and cares about each other, I think that's valuable and is pretty cool."

Sprague moves on in the 6A postseason to face No. 6 seed Sherwood. That round of 16 game will be played Oct. 30 at a yet to be determined time.

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