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Cougars get their first live court experience at Pioneers' jamboree on Thursday

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - After falling just short of the league playoffs in each of the past two seasons, the Cougars are looking to build on last years 8-12 season and make their way back to the post season.After a month of preparation and a summer of anticipation, the Gervais volleyball team finally had the opportunity to put their shoes to the court for some live action on Thursday, Aug. 29 at the Western Christian Pioneers' annual season-opening volleyball jamboree.

After the Cougars soundly won their opening set against Mannahouse Christian Academy, the flood of excitement for a new year of athletics and school came rushing back.

"I love volleyball! It's so fun," junior Lilly Welburn said. "It's just amazing. The season — it brings you back, your friends and family."

Marking her third year with the varsity volleyball program, Welburn entered the busy gymnasiums at Western Christian High School 15 minutes north of Salem on the west side of the Willamette River. Featuring more than a dozen teams across the 3A, 2A and 1A classifications, some of which the Cougars will face in the upcoming Tri-River Conference schedule, the jamboree was a solid way to open the season for the Cougars, exposing them to a variety of tough programs to kick off the year.

"I came in and was like, 'Wow, we've got some pretty good competition,'" Welburn said. "But our assistant coach Kevin always tells us to just breathe. You can only do what you can do. You've just got to do your best, and we went out there and did it."

The Cougars have improved every season since Welburn and her class entered the program two years ago, and this year the team is looking to continue that trend, building on last year's 8-12 season to make a run at the postseason for the first time consecutive league playoff appearances in 2014-16.

"I'm just really motivated to get us to playoffs this year and at least try to aim for that," middle blocker Bella Vasquez said. "I think we're going to do good this year."

Welburn echoed that sentiment.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Junior setter Celi Vasquez sets up a point in the opening game of the Cougars' trip to Western Christian's jamboree on Thursday."I want to go as far as we can go," she said. "I'm a junior, so we've got to start going places. We've got a lot of strong people coming up; I think we can do good, if not this year then next year for sure."

Vasquez is one of two seniors on this year's roster, including classmate Natali Barrera. And while the mentality to send the senior class off with a memorable year is present, Welburn said that's just something that happens every year with every senior class.

"It's always like that," Welburn said. "It's all our nothing; when you step on that court, you've better be giving it your all. And if you're not, (head coach) Maddy (Bowman) will sit you."

Vasquez and Welburn both praised the play and poise of the program's incoming freshmen class, providing the Cougars a much-needed boost of talent and defense at the net for the 2019 season.

"They're doing awesome," Vasquez said. "I'm so glad we have some tall freshmen coming in, and they're going to help us out this year."

Following Thursday's jamboree session, the Cougars have a week to relax over Labor Day weekend and regroup for the beginning of the season in earnest when Gervais travels to Amity to face their former 3A league rivals on Thursday, Sept. 5.

The Cougars move on to a weekend tournament at Gaston High School on Saturday, Sept. 7 before returning to Gervais for their home opener against the Delphian Dragons on Sept. 10.

For Welburn and the rest of the gang, it's a welcome return to action and an enjoyable way to open the 2019-20 school year.

"Basketball is my love and my passion, but volleyball is just fun," Welburn said. "It's not as stressful as basketball."

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