North Marion goes toe-to-toe with the state's best teams at their home tournament

PHIL HAWKINS - North Marion senior Ally Umbenhower (center) and the Huskies celebrate during the team's 1-1 draw against No. 10 Scappoose during pool play for the 12-team North Marion volleyball tournament on Saturday. The Huskies went on to defeat No. 4 Tillamook and advance to the tournament semifinals.
As the 2017 fall season comes to its zenith, the North Marion volleyball team is showing every sign that it is peaking at the most opportune moment.

The Huskies (9-8, 5-3 Oregon West) enter this week on the heels of a successful outing in their annual home tournament. Due to unexpected cancellations and rescheduling of other tournaments around the region, North Marion was able to host 12 teams in their year's event, attracting a number of top tier programs and give the Huskies just the challenge needed to set the team on the right path for the final stretch of the regular season.

North Marion went 1-1 in seeded play at the tournament, defeating No. 4 Tillamook 2-1 (25-23, 20-25, 15-13) in the first round before falling 2-1 (26-28, 25-26, 15-7) to No. 3 Hidden Valley in the semifinals.

Heading into the tournament, the Huskies were coming off a 3-1 loss (25-19, 25-15, 11-25, 25-22) loss to No. 5 Philomath on Thursday in a game that was much closer than the final score indicated.

The Huskies had won back-to-back league games on the road heading into the contest against the league-leading Warriors, and led the fourth game 19-16 before a bout of faulty serving cost North Marion the game.

"The turning point for us was definitely the Philomath game," North Marion Head Coach Jackie Arnold said. "If we eliminate mistakes, like our serves, we can definitely go ahead of teams."

Entering the season, the Huskies were a team in flux. The team had eight returning players with varsity experience, but Arnold knew that coming into the program as a new coach would likely set the team's progress back initially.

"I told the girls the way to expect this season is on a curve," Arnold said. "(Success) won't happen right at the beginning."

PHIL HAWKINS - North Marion junior Paige Martin goes up for a stuff block in the Huskies' pool game against No. 10 Scappoose on Saturday.And she was right. Despite possessing strong athleticism, the Huskies had trouble with communication and developing a cohesive team unity. After a win to open the season, North Marion lost four of its next six games heading into the league schedule.

But Arnold knew the team was bubbling with potential, and once they learned to play not as six individuals on the court, but one unit, the group would be able to challenge the state's elite programs.

"You come into a team that has a lot of talent, but they have never truly worked as a unit," Arnold said. "You're making them buy into what you're presenting. It takes a while."

After opening the league schedule with two straight wins, the Huskies were swept by Philomath and had to go five games to beat a struggling Stayton team, followed by another sweep at the hands of Cascade.

But the team persevered. As the Huskies got familiar with a new defensive scheme that capitalized on the team's athleticism, they began to excel.

"We changed our defense around to match our strengths," Arnold said. "The girls have bought into the new defense. It takes very athletic, in-shape girls. They are able to take hard shots, but they also have to be able to cover the floor."

The team also grew off the court, taking a team trip to Bend where the girls spent all their time developing the kind of bonds that pay dividends when it's game time.

"Those things have a lot of meaning. It's not just for fun," Arnold said. "They get to know each other better and they learn to trust each other. We're really focusing on the communication part, because that is not something that comes easy to the athletes."

With two games left in the league schedule sandwiching a trip to Seaside this weekend, the Huskies are in a great position. One more win and the team can clinch a play-in spot. Two wins and the team could overtake Cascade for second place in the final conference standings, giving the team a home game in the state playoffs.

With the team playing at its highest level all season, the Huskies have every intention of being a tournament spoiler at the end of the season.

"The past couple weeks, we are a completely different team, and because of that we are able to beat higher ranked teams," Arnold said.

But first they have to get there, and that begins with a scheduled game at Stayton on Tuesday, followed by the Seaside Tournament on Saturday. The Huskies finish the season on senior night at home on Oct. 17 against No. 8 Cascade.

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