How do you follow up a season in which you go undefeated and win a state championship? By putting it in the past and focusing on the now, according to the St. Paul volleyball team.
The Buckaroos graduated six seniors from the best team in program history, but expectations remain for St. Paul to be at or near the top of the 1A classification in 2019. After going 30-0 last season, coach Lesli Hiller said the team is handling those expectations well this fall and is focused on building its chemistry.
St. Paul doesn't expect to go undefeated again, by any means, but it does plan to face top competition and give its revamped squad some necessary tests.
"We've decided to have a tougher schedule this year because we want to continue to improve and become an even better team than last year," Hiller said. "Sometimes you might not have an undefeated season with a schedule like this, but we're okay with that."
Some of the athletes on the volleyball team haven't lost a game in volleyball or basketball in more than a year. The girls' basketball team went 30-0 and captured a state title last season as well, cementing St. Paul's place among the state's small school elite and contributing to the school's 1A OSAA Cup victory. The OSAA Cup is given at the end of each athletic year to the school with the most successful athletic program.
Senior Isabelle Wyss was one of the best players on both the basketball and volleyball team. She said the tradition of girls' sports in St. Paul has grown in the past couple years thanks in large part to support from the community.
"It's definitely been a lot better in recent years across all of the sports," Wyss said. "We've competed really well at the 1A and 2A levels. To be able to compete in both shows the progress of our athletic program."
Wyss and fellow senior Erin Counts are among a strong group of hitters for the Bucks and they comprise half of a four-person senior class. Other seniors include Destiny Smith and Karlee Southerland, who also played key roles on last year's title team.
Hiller said it's "always nice to have a couple horses" like Wyss and Counts, but the underrated strength of the team – in her mind – is their teammates' ability to set the ball. That is the difference, Hiller said, between good and great volleyball teams.
"We have phenomenal setters," Hiller said. "I think that's why we've been able to have these hitters excel so much – the ball is being put right where they want it. If they're told to set for one person or another, they'll do it from anywhere on the court."
A handful of freshmen come into the fold this season along with a pair of transfers. One of the transfers that appeared to have an immediate impact this summer was junior outside hitter Mary Davidson, who comes to St. Paul by way of Gervais.
Hiller said Davidson's family already owned a farm in St. Paul, but they decided to build a house on their property and move to town. Davidson has been a "welcome addition" to the volleyball team with her height and athleticism, Hiller said.
Even with the new faces on the team, the quartet of seniors agrees that chemistry is developing quickly for the Bucks. They chalk that up to team bonding experiences and a summer season in which they had a chance to get a feel for each other on the court.
"I think we all are really positive," Southerland said. "Nobody brings the team down and we can shake off every mistake. That helps a lot – having that mindset and being all in every play."
Mental toughness exists throughout the lineup, the seniors said, which keeps the team focused on the day-to-day grind of practices in the lead-up to its first game on Aug. 31 at Class 2A Kennedy. That game and the ensuing tournament should provide a significant early challenge for this group as it shakes off the early-season rust.
Other major stops along the way include a tournament at Heppner High School the weekend of Sep. 7 and a national tournament in Phoenix, Ariz., in early October hosted by Nike. The Bucks will be in the desert southwest Oct. 4-5 for this "Tournament of Champions," which draws some of the top teams from around the country.
Wyss said having a challenging schedule is the best way for St. Paul to keep getting better. For a team in partial transition after a dominant, undefeated season, it only makes sense that they continue to challenge themselves.
"That's how we've become the team we are," Wyss said. "In past years, playing tough teams turned us into the team that went undefeated and won a state championship. We always played up and that will help us this year as we continue getting closer.
"We were such a close team last year. Building that again will be easy this year because we all know how much that helped our success."
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