The La Grande High School volleyball team goes through drills Thursday in preperation for the opening game of the season Saturday against Hermiston. (PAUL HARDER/The Observer)
It’s been two straight years that the La Grande Tigers have topped the final volleyball standings, and now the quest begins for a threepeat.
Last season the Tigers cruised to a perfect 9-0 record in the Greater Oregon League, giving them a three-game cushion over second place Baker City.
In the opening round of the state playoffs, La Grande swept Scappoose to advance to the final eight. The quest for a state title ended there, with the Tigers dropping their first match to Madras. La Grande bounced back to defeat Elmira before falling to Sisters in the final game of the playoff run.
“It was a great experience for our girls,” La Grande head coach Melinda Becker-Peters said. “Anytime you can play against that level of competition it’s a good thing. The program is headed in the right direction.
“We’re all just ready to see what we can do this season.”
Fans don’t need to worry about a drop off. The Tigers return six seniors this season, including starting center Kendall Kirkland.
“I had girls on the bench that could have started for us,” Becker said. “It kept the practices very challenging and helped make us a better team. We have a very strong core of girls coming back.”
That core consists of Hanna Cashell, Brandy Blackman, Anna Grigsby, Cassidy Crites and Lilly Page.
Among that group are players that can put the ball on the floor for points.
“It’s nice to have so many different pieces coming back,” said Becker-Peters. “We have girls that can put the ball away, some can play defense, and the key is having someone experienced that can set the ball.
“We have a nice cycle going in the program, where we have a group of older girls and younger girls that can make practices competitive each day.”
Behind the core of upperclassmen for Becker-Peters is a group of sophomores and freshman looking to earn more time on the floor:
Kali Avila, Mattie Spencer, Becca McLean, Avery Albrecht and Shania Holpuch.
“It’s a good class of younger girls,” Becker-Peters said. “They’ll be able to fill in the holes around the team and maybe see expanded time on the court.
“Volleyball is a tough game because you have to ride the momentum. If our older girls are getting the job done that’s great. That’s what we want. But it’s always nice to have a group behind them that may be able to help out if needed.”
The Tigers also got a transfer student from New Mexico in Cassie Brownell.
“We’ll take whatever extra talent we can get,” Becker-Peters said. “We’ll see exactly where she’s going to be able to help us.”
The Tigers aren’t taking anything for granted despite running the table last season in the GOL.
Baker, Ontario and McLoughlin certainly will be gunning to make sure the threepeat doesn’t happen. The Bulldogs were the league champs before La Grande started its run.
“Baker matches are always scrappy,” Becker-Peters said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of talent is out there on the floor. It’s going to be a tough match whether it’s in our gym or in their gym.”
As for the teams in the league, Becker-Peters is looking for tougher competition, too.
“McLoughlin was as tough as they have ever been. Ontario is always going to put athletes on the floor.
“It’s better for the league because we don’t have a lot of teams to choose from. We all need to push each other during that league schedule so that we’re ready for the playoffs.”
There will be a new wrinkle to the season schedule. All the GOL teams will still be playing each other this season, a total of three times. However, only two will count as league contests. The other game will be a non-league contest in the schedule.
This decision came late into the scheduling process, causing a little backlash.
“It’s too bad that it came before we could make adjustments to the schedule,” Becker-Peters said. “It’s nothing against Baker, Ontario or McLoughlin. We just would have liked to be able to find different teams to play in non-league games.”
One big reason is that the state rankings are heavily tied into the strength of schedule. Every team is looking to be at the top of the final rankings to try to get the smoothest ride through the play-in game and state brackets.
La Grande will open the season against Hermiston and Pendleton on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
“The girls are ready to take swings against other players,” said Becker-Peters. “I’m excited to see what we look like out on the court, too. Then we’ll gain a better understanding of what we need to do .”
in order to reach our goals.”