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Lions bring back a handful of talented upperclassmen after reaching 5A playoffs

PMG PHOTO: STEVE BRANDON - Varsity mainstays for the 2019 St. Helens Lions are (front row, from left) Kasten Warner, Jasmyne Pense, Izy Wallace, Dessa Cooper and Brea Paulson and (back row, from left) Jean Gartman, Brynn Austin, Savannah Moore, McKenna Miller and Karlee Webster.On Sept. 14, St. Helens volleyball coach Tom Ray will induct his 2014 state championship team into the school's athletic Hall of Fame, in a ceremony that's sure to be festive and memory-filled.

That special '14 club set the bar for the program. It is the standard-bearer. A majority of the current crop of St. Helens players were wide-eyed middle schoolers watching from the stands, following the team to the state tournament.

The expectation isn't to win a Class 5 title every season, but the '14 season is a reminder what the Lion program is capable of. And this fall, a year after making the second round of the 5A playoffs, St. Helens hopes to finish in the top four of the Northwest Oregon Conference and make the Elite Eight, because if it gets there, anything can happen.

The 2019 Lions are young but talented, experienced and led by a state championship coach in Ray who's won titles at two schools.

"These girls know what it takes to be a champion," Ray said. "My goal is to make them successful in life. I really want them to be good people first, good students second and then coachable in volleyball. I try to get the most out every athlete by being positive. I'm not one to make them runs lines if something bad happens. I try to find the positive in every situation."

Last year, St. Helens (9-11 overall, 8-6 NWOC) had a tough road in the 5A playoffs as the Lions were swept by eventual state champion Corvallis.

La Salle Prep and Wilsonville figure to be solid again in the NWOC as does Scappoose. But the Lions are loaded for bear with a six-person junior class and key seniors in important positions.

"My expectations are high. They could actually place at state this year and next year," Ray said. "We have the tools to do it. I'm hoping they can do it. That's the goal."

Senior Dessa Cooper is St. Helens' starting libero, a position that's been stocked over the years for the Lions and is looked upon as the key to unlocking the squad's potential.

"It's her turn now," Ray said of Cooper. "She's going to be loud and obnoxious on the floor. She has to be a ball hog. That's how I've trained my liberos since my state title championship year. It's their team. Any ball they can get back, they take."

Junior middle blocker Savannah Moore is a big-time explosive athlete who finished fifth in the 5A 100-meter dash last spring, despite an injury. She's 5-9 with quicks and hops.

Karlee Webster was the only freshman on varsity a year ago. She's a hard hitter on the outside.

Senior outside hitter Brynn Austin is another powerful hitter who can go on long spike sprees.

Junior middle blocker Jean Gartman is a transfer from Rainier, and fellow junior Kasten Warner moved up from the Lion junior varsity team.

Izy Wallace and McKenna Miller are utility players who can play outside, right side, middle or the back row.

Look for juniors Brea Paulson and Jasmyne Pence to see time in the rotation as well.

What's stood out most to Ray about this current crop is the flexibility of his lineups.

"I already complimented the girls for that," Ray said. "If they make my job hard in putting together a lineup, that means they're good. I'm really looking forward to this season. With this team, there is so much versatility. I can put girls in different spots. There are lots of middles (blockers), lots of right sides (hitters) and outsides (hitters). I can move them wherever I want to. We're going to be solid."

Ray doesn't have to drag his team to practice and demand their attention, either.

"I don't have to do attendance," Ray said. "The girls want to be at practice. They love being there. To me, that's success."

Half of the schools in the NWOC have new coaches: Hillsboro, La Salle Prep, Parkrose and Milwaukie.

St. Helens opens the season Sept. 5 on the road against La Salle Prep, then plays its home opener against Parkrose on Sept. 10.


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