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The growth the Bucks experienced at the Nike Tournament of Champions came in handy during an inter-classification clash.

PMG PHOTO: TANNER RUSS - Junior outside hitter Stella Koch earned the game winning kill in St. Pauls 3-2 win over Salem Academy on Oct. 10.

To understand the St. Paul volleyball team's Oct. 10 victory over Salem Academy, you need to go back 11 days earlier.

The Bucks were on the heels of a 3-0 sweep of C.S. Lewis Academy and headed to the airport to travel to the Nike Tournament of Champions in Arizona. Receiving the invitation to participate in the massive volleyball event is nothing new -- St. Paul first got the call in 2009.

The team went for a few years, switched to a summer tournament schedule according to St. Paul head coach Lesli Hiller, but decided to return to the Nike invitational after a three-year hiatus.

St. Paul's volleyball team and some family supporters flew out Wednesday night, Sept. 28, and spent Thursday bonding and exploring Scottsdale. When Friday came, so did the work.

St. Paul went 1-2 on the first day, dropping contests to Arizona's Casteel and Mesquite High School teams but defeating Utah's Lehi 2-1. Saturday was busier than Friday, with the Bucks going 2-2 and collecting wins over Arizona's Mountain Pointe and Desert Mountain High Schools. For Hiller, the wins and losses mattered less than battling it out with the toughest competition available.

COURTESY PHOTO: LESLI HILLER - The St. Paul volleyball traveled to compete on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 in the Nike Tournament of Champions.

"It was definitely more about going and getting to play at that high level," Hiller said shortly after the team returned from its trip. "We weren't as concerned about winning. We had a couple more that we went three sets and lost that we probably could have won. But (of) all of the matches we were in, there weren't any that we got slaughtered or anything, you know?"

The competition was good for the Bucks, said Hiller. The team showed what it could do on offense, but the biggest growth came on the defensive side of the net.

"It's just little things here and there throughout the whole time, everybody had their moments where they had something just amazing happen," Hiller said. "We had both Stella and Isla that took direct hard hits coming from, super-fast arm swing hard hits, coming from other teams that were hitting at an extremely high level and the block didn't get there and those girls just popped it right up because they were lined up perfectly.

"Those digs were pretty incredible and impressive," Hiller continued. Then along the same lines, we had some blocks that were that way, where the blocker did get there and stuff blocked a pretty strong hit, you know? I guess the biggest thing was the change we saw in our defense, and them raising up and trying to … it was just impressive."

Against Salem Academy on Oct. 10, the Bucks were able to show off their improvements on the defensive side of the net. The Crusaders entered the contest as the No. 1-ranked team in the state at 2A, having collected 54 sets against all opponents. But they would not get a 55th thanks to the Bucks defense. St. Paul's 3-2 victory came with scores of 25-14, 13-25, 25-23, 18-25, 15-9.

St. Paul sophomore middle blocker Audra Rose finished the first set with a massive block at the net. She credited the experience of competing in the Tournament of Champions for improving her defensive skillset.

PMG PHOTO: TANNER RUSS - Sophomore middle blocker was a dominant force at the net for St. Paul in her teams victory over Salem Academy on Oct. 10.

"Definitely (prepared us for tonight)," Rose said. "There in Arizona, they're awesome caliber. They really helped us get our defense together, get our blocks together. I wouldn't have been able to block most of those balls without them because they made me push out to the net and get on the side."

Junior outside hitter Stella Koch also had a stellar showing against the Crusaders, and like Rose credited the competition found in Arizona.

"It prepared us so much," Koch said. "They had so many good blockers and hitters over there, and we were digging, and we were passing. We got third in our bracket over there and it pumped us up. We came back and got some good competition today, but that was great for us."

Salem Academy is the last big fish St. Paul will face in the regular season before the postseason. The Bucks have a trio of games left against Perrydale, Willamette Valley Christian and Crosshill Christian, all teams that St. Paul swept earlier in the season.

The district tournament doesn't start until Saturday, Oct. 22 but Hiller wants her team to stay focused during practice as they ramp up for the playoffs.

"Something we've talked about is just trying to keep the level of speed and intensity going," Hiller said. "That's going to come down probably to having real intense practices, doing a lot of conditioning and just trying to keep the flow as a quick flow, you know, in practice and not settling back at all."

Rose and Koch are both eager to continue competing against the best available with a state championship their clearly stated goal.

"Our goal is state, simple as that," Rose said. "I think we have the potential, too."

"It's our turn," Koch said. "We want that competition; we scheduled this game for competition and Arizona. We're such a bonded team, we're so connected, and I hope it's there this year."

St. Paul (21-5, 9-0 in Casco League) is scheduled to head to Perrydale (11-6, 7-2 in Casco League) on Tuesday, Oct. 11.


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