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St. Helens, which will lose only three seniors, bows out in Class 5A first round

PMG PHOTO: STEVE BRANDON - St. Helens players celebrate a point won during their state playoff match at Corvallis. From left are Brynn Austin, Brea Paulson, Ellie Austin and Izy Wallace. CORVALLIS — Somebody might be able to take down defending state volleyball champion Corvallis High this year.

But if someone does, it will be at this week's Class 5A tournament at Liberty High.

It didn't happen last Saturday, as the 5A playoffs began with the underdog St. Helens Lions visiting Corvallis for a first-round match.

The host Spartans, who feature two future NCAA Division I players on their front line, hammered their way to a 3-0 win and advanced to the final eight that will play at Liberty on Friday and Saturday.

Corvallis predictably had little trouble keeping its season alive, winning 25-14, 15-15, 25-13.

But the Lions had their moments, and did better than they did a year ago, when they also had to travel to Corvallis for a first-round match and lost that one, 25-14, 25-10, 25-6.

"It went way better than last year," said St. Helens senior middle blocker Brynn Austin. "This year, I feel like we played with more heart. We went all-out. We played hard and for each other and not ourselves."

"We competed," Lions coach Tom Ray said.

In 2018, Corvallis all but romped to the state title. The Spartans lost only four sets against 5A competition.

This year, after losing six seniors, Corvallis has had to reload a bit. But with University of Portland-bound outside hitter Ryann Gregg and Oregon State commit and middle blocker Nevaeh Bray leading the way, the Spartans are still potent — especially with some improving support elsewhere on the court.

Against St. Helens, 5-11 senior Gregg posted 18 kills and hit .556, while 5-11 senior Bray had 12 kills with only one error, hitting .611.

Corvallis, which hit .409, also got 37 assists from junior transfer setter Zaley Bennett and five aces from junior libero Kendal Simmons.

"Defensively, we played very well, and that allowed us to run the offense we want to run," Spartans coach Steve Hyre said. "With Ryann and Nevaeh, if we can get them the ball in our fast offense, good things happen.

"But I'm also pleased with the younger kids who don't have the same varsity experience as those two. They're starting to see things."

Corvallis will go into its 1:15 p.m. Friday state quarterfinal match against Crook County with a 17-4 record. The Spartans are seeded fourth in 5A; Crook County (20-8) is No. 5.

Hyre said junior middle blocker Savannah Moore stood out to him as a Lions threat.

"She's a premier player," he said.

The Corvallis coach also said junior Jean Gartman "puts up a big block" and that the Lions "have some good kids, they just have to keep working at it. Offseason stuff really helps."

One of the highlights for St. Helens down the stretch this season was the sister duo of Brynn Austin and freshman Ellie Austin, who began the year on the junior varsity but got to play some on varsity as well and by the end of the season was in the varsity rotation, mostly as a defensive specialist.

Ellie Austin had a good showing at Corvallis.

"It was fun to be a part of this game," she said.

"How she played today against the No. 4 team in the state really showed why she's here and on varsity now," Brynn Austin said. "She's getting a lot better."

The sisters said they enjoyed being able to play together — something they'll do in the spring as well, when Brynn returns at first base for the Lions softball team and Ellie is in line to play at third base. Softball is her top sport, she said, although basketball is next.

Getting the varsity experience in volleyball as a ninth-grader was fun, Ellie said.

"It was scary. I was nervous. But Brynn helped me out, and we had a good time together," she said. "I didn't expect to play this much, but I worked for it."

"We get along really well," said Brynn, who in previous years also played volleyball with older sister Abby, a 2018 St. Helens High graduate.

The Lions, who went into the postseason ranked 13th, ended their year with a 12-9 record.

St. Helens was third in the Northwest Oregon Conference behind Wilsonville and runner-up La Salle Prep — who both qualified for the eight-team state tournament.

"We were so excited coming into this game," Austin said.

The Lions took an early morning bus to Corvallis, stopping at Black Bear Diner in Wilsonville.

"On our bus ride, we were all awake, we were all listening to music," Brynn said.

The sisters ordered the same thing for breakfast: biscuits with sausages and eggs and gravy.

"So we were ready for the match," Brynn said.

Corvallis was, too, of course.

"We really struggled with those two (Gregg and Bray) last year," Brynn said. "This year, we knew they were going to be good hitters and so we set up our blocks outside, and we got some key touches a lot of their swings. It's just that sometimes they were too fast for us to get a touch on the ball. And their players read our court well."

The Lions will graduate only three players from their 2019 squad: Brynn Austin, libero Dessa Cooper and outside hitter Izy Wallace.

"I'm sad that I'm leaving," Brynn Austin said, "but I know Ellie is going to kick some butt, and I think they're going to be solid next season."

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