Husky spikers power way to state finals before falling to Valley Catholic

Sean C. Morgan

Sweet Home’s volleyball players finished second in the state 4A championship tournament after sweeping Hidden Valley and Philomath Friday to reach the state final Saturday for the first time in 27 years.

Valley Catholic defeated the Huskies 25-23, 25-23 and 25-13 to win the championship, held at Forest Grove High School.

“They were disappointed,” said Coach Mary Hutchins of her players. “They’re such competitors. Give it some time, I know they will find the pride we have for them. It was really hard getting to that game in the first place.”

And the Huskies did it in just this team’s second appearance in the final eight, Hutchins said. It is only Sweet Home’s third time ever in the final match. The Huskies reached the finals previously in 1988 and 1992.

At the end of the day, they were one of three Oregon West Conference Teams in the top four at state. Philomath finished in third place, and Sisters finished fourth.

“I’m really proud of us for even making it to the finals,” said team captain Allison Miner, a senior. It’s been 27 years since Sweet Home was in the finals. “Overall, I’m disappointed. You don’t go to state to get second. It’s still pretty cool that we placed and we were able to bring back the hardware, but you always want more.

No matter what, when they were playing, the team fought for every point, Miner said, and she was proud of how much they improved during the season.

“I would like to say this from me to the community,” Hutchins said. “The girls, the volleyball program appreciated all the support of the community, all the people that did things for the team, all the people and kids that showed up to games to support us.

“We would like to extend the most heartfelt thank you. The girls wanted to represent Sweet Home. They just wanted to play well for everyone. It meant a lot to them to walk in at state and see all the people, friends, family, acquaintances, people from Sweet Home. It meant a lot.”

Sweet Home won the tournament’s Sportsmanship Award. Hutchins heard it was because Sweet Home’s crowd “was so respectful and great.”

The girls immediately presented the plaque to the Sweet Home student section.

“I love our crowd,” Miner said. “And they’re so fun to play for. I’m excited they also got an award.”

In the first game of the championship, Valley Catholic took a quick 3-0 lead. The Huskies settled in and went on a 15-3 run to lead the game 15-6. Valley Catholic answered with a run that tied the game at 17-17. The Valiants edged the Huskies 25-23 in a point-for-point scramble to end the game.

Valley Catholic held a one- to five-point advantage early in the second game, leading 16-11 at one point before Sweet Home roared back and tied the game at 16-16. The Valiants led by a couple of points on its way to another narrow win the second game.

“We had a plan for Valley Catholic,” Hutchins said. “We were executing that plan.”

The Huskies plan was to serve to specific players to help keep the ball out of the middle of the court, making it harder to set for the more dominant hitters.

Miner thinks the Huskies caught Valley Catholic off guard, she said. “Once they realized they couldn’t just roll over (us) just like they do with everybody else, they were able to ground (themselves).”

At times, Hutchins said, she thinks the moment, playing in the championship game, “got too big. I don’t think we played to our potential like we did Friday.”

Valley Catholic has been in the finals three times now, Hutchins said, and afterward, Valley Catholic’s coach told Hutchins that’s where Valley Catholic was the first time it was in the championship game.

Sweet Home never stopped fighting, Hutchins said. The Huskies would go back to the game plan and make some headway and then get lost in the moment again.

Valley Catholic built a quick lead in the third game with an 11-4 run, and the Huskies weren’t able to catch up this time.

On the match, Bailee Hartsook recorded 11 kills. Shelbey Nichol had nine, and Teja Abbott had six. Savannah Hutchins recorded 32 assists. Graci Zanona and Miner each had 11 digs, and Nichol scored two aces.

Heading into the tournament Friday, “we knew that were obviously on the strong side of the bracket,” which included Sisters, Hidden Valley and Philomath, Hutchins said. “Everybody from our side of the bracket finished second, third, fourth. We knew we had to come in and play strong.”

Hidden Valley was up first. Sweet Home had split games with Hidden Valley in pool play during the early season.

The Mustangs were all healthy, with no injuries, Hutchins said.

“We were a little beat up, but the girls did not let that affect them. We had a game plan. The girls executed it. We practiced where the holes in the defense were.”

The Huskies had a great serve receive, and they served the ball to the people they had talked about, Hutchins said.

“We just stuck to our game plan,” Miner said. “We had played Hidden Valley before, and so we knew what they would do.”

Sweet Home won handily, 25-18, 25-21 and 25-14.

After Hidden Valley, the Huskies knew they would face either Sisters or Philomath, both Oregon West foes.

The good thing about making it to the final eight last year, when Sweet Home finished fifth, was Hutchins learned to look ahead at the bracket, she said. Her team practiced for different scenarios depending on how the Sisters-Philomath game turned out.

She knew that would be a good game and Philomath could win it, she said. Sisters and Philomath run the same system, and the teams had close five-game matches earlier in the year.

“Philomath was very pumped up,” Hutchins said. “They beat Corbett to get in. They were feeling kind of like they had new life.”

That fueled the Warriors’ warm-ups, and they were playing well, Hutchins said. She had a chance to see what Philomath was doing after wrapping up the Hidden Valley game.

The Huskies took some time to rest and eat Friday, Hutchins said, and they spent about an hour practicing before facing Philomath.

“We knew we had to come out really pumped up and kind of make a statement,” Hutchins said. “We came out against Philomath and just kind went after them.”

They won 25-14, 25-16 and 25-13.

“I feel like our play all day on Friday was just so amazing, inspiring,” Hutchins said.

The Huskies were unusual, winning both of matches decisively in three games. Valley Catholic was the only other team to do that. All other matches in the tournament went to four or five games.

That shows the high level of play in the final eight, Hutchins said. “It’s a completely different thing than league. The energy is completely different.”

Anybody can win on any given day, she said. “Every single game is important. You have to go in every game and play the lights out.”

Following the tournament, Savannah Hutchins and Zanona were named to the second-team all-tournament. Nichol and Hartsook were named to the first-team all-tournament.

That is based on voting by coaches in the final eight tournament. The all-tournament honors went to 11 players total, including five from Valley Catholic, one from Banks and one from Sisters.

Hutchins said it’s been a great season for the varsity, JV and JV2 teams.

“I’m proud of all of them,” she said, noting that the Huskies won two tournaments, were the co-league champion with Sisters in a league that had three of the top-four placers at state, and automatically qualified for state before going on to win the second-place trophy.

Sweet Home finishes the season 21-3 overall and 18-2 in league play. Going into playoffs, the Huskies were ranked third in the state behind Sisters and Valley Catholic and ahead of Junction City.

Varsity players are seniors Katie Kurtz, Miner and Samantha Virtue; juniors Zanona, Emily Windom, Hartsook, Savannah Hutchins, Nichol, Maddee Housen and Abbott; and sophomores Jamie Seward, Chloe Tyler and Adaira Burger.