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Cougars blend youth and experience this season in transition to 2A Tri-River Conference

PHIL HAWKINS - Returning sophomores like Mary Davidson (above), along with teammates Araceli Vasquez and Lilly Welburn give the Cougars a strong youthful presence this year.
The Gervais volleyball team kicked off its season on Thursday, falling on the road to Catlin Gabel 3-0 (25-21, 25-13, 25-16) in the Cougars' lone non-conference game before diving directly into their league schedule.

The Cougars enter this season with a strong combination of youth and experience. Gervais lost four athletes to graduation in the spring, but comes to the court this fall with three sophomores — Celi Vasquez, Mary Davidson and Lilly Welburn — who cut their teeth at the varsity level last year.

Along with junior Bella Vasquez, who has been a varsity contributor each of the past two seasons, the Cougars' coaching staff is excited to see its young team grow and thrive heading into the 2018 season.

"I have been telling the girls that we have potential to do well as long as we give our best," head coach Maddy Bowman said.

Right side hitter Natali Barrera joins Vasquez among the junior class, and veteran seniors Alexis Luna, Erika Rambeau and Abigail Saalfeld, who was a Second Team selection at libero in the PacWest All-Conference last season, round out the rest of the team.

This year's Cougars feature another newcomer in assistant coach Kevin Davidson, who joins Bowman on the coaching staff after the two worked together last athletic season with the softball program. Davidson took over the softball team as head coach in the spring, while Bowman stayed on as an assistant, and the two developed instant chemistry that Bowman is excited to see continue into the volleyball season.

"Kevin Davidson and I work really well together," Bowman said. "He is just an all-around good coach and person, (and) is willing to help anyone with anything. He can coach anything and everything and he will really be an asset for us this year."

After years of playing at the 3A level, the Cougars join the 2A Classification this season and will be pitted against stiff competition in their new home among the Tri-River Conference. The Tri-River features two of the strongest teams in the state at the 2A level — the Culver Bulldogs and Kennedy Trojans — who finished second and third, respectively, at last year's state championship tournament, and have been volleyball powers for much of the last decade.

PHIL HAWKINS - Senior Libero Abby Saalfeld brings her veteran experience to the Cougars after garnering Second Team All-Conference honors last year in the PacWest Conference.The Cougars will get a first-hand look at those teams early in the season, facing Culver twice and Kennedy once in their first four games of the season. But Gervais won't be fully unfamiliar with the Tri-River. Two other former 3A rivals — the Chemawa Braves and Colton Vikings — also moved to 2A in last year's reclassification, giving the Cougars a level of familiarity within the conference.

With the addition of the Sheridan Spartans, which also moved classifications, and the Delphian Dragons, which moved leagues to the Tri-River, it's difficult for Gervais to form any concrete expectations on what's to come in the season.

Bowman is hoping to use that uncertainty to her team's advantage, encouraging her team to embrace the swirling ambiguity among the newly-formed Tri-River Conference and rise up the standings.

"Yes we have seen Chemawa and Colton, and yes Kennedy and Culver may have been at the top, but … there are a lot of teams that moved," Bowman said. "This is a mix of different leagues, and anything goes. I think with all the changes anything can happen."

Gervais (0-1) was scheduled to travel to Culver (3-0) on Tuesday, followed by a trip to Kennedy High School on Thursday to compete against the hosting Trojans (2-0) and the Western Christian Pioneers (0-1).

The Cougars will host the Bulldogs on Sept. 10 in the team's first home game of the season.

Phil Hawkins can be reached at 503-765-1194 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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