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One playoff spot.
That is essentially what is on the line at the Wapiti League district volleyball tournament, which takes place Saturday at Quinn Coliseum.
Grant Union, as the regular season champion, already has a berth into the district tournament title match and state playoffs locked up. The league, however, only has one other guaranteed state playoff spot. That will go to the winner of the Union/Imbler match, which opens tournament action at 9 a.m. Union won both regular season contests in straight sets.
The winner of that match gets another crack at the Prospectors — who went undefeated in league play — in the title match.
“I think you have to play really consistently,” Imbler head coach Jennifer Teeter said of what it would take for a team to beat Grant Union. “You have to play really aggressively and play strong defense. They’re a great team also. We were the one team in league that did take a set from them, and almost took two. Volleyball is one of those sports that if you can stick with a team and play with them point-for-point, any team has a shot to win it.”
Union head coach Lasa Baxter said she believes Grant Union is peaking at the right time.
“They have a well-developed program,” she said. “The last several years, they’ve had an incredible amount of talent. We know it’s going to be a big feat (for someone) to overcome the league champs.”
The loser between Imbler and Union drops into a matchup with Enterprise for third place.
But just because only two berths are guaranteed doesn’t mean that’s all the league could end up with. In Class 2A, 14 berths are automatically given out across the six leagues. The remaining two spots are at-large berths granted based on a team’s OSAA rankings. The two highest-ranked teams to not earn automatic berth statewide earn those final spots.
Union, however, is the only team that has a realistic chance of qualifying from state as an at-large from the Wapiti, and even then, it’s not a given. Entering play today, the Bobcats are ninth in the OSAA rankings. Among teams statewide, that puts them on the bubble should they stumble against Imbler and give the Panthers the second automatic berth.
Here’s why: The Tri-River Conference is almost guaranteed to pick up one of those two at-large spots. The TRC, like the Wapiti, only has two assured berths, but currently has three teams in the top five. Barring anything wild happening in its district tournament, those three teams — Central Linn, Kennedy and St. Paul — are all likely state-bound.
That leaves one available spot. The Bobcats, as aforementioned, are currently ninth. Heppner and Weston-McEwen, of the Columbia Basin Conference, are sixth and eighth, respectively. One is likely to get an automatic bid. The other could wind up on the same bubble as the Bobcats — or another surprise team across the state — with their hopes dangling on where they fall in the final rankings, which freeze Tuesday night.
That’s, of course, if Union were to be upset by the Panthers. A Bobcat win gives them the second spot and almost assuredly leaves the winner of Imbler/Enterprise for third place on the outside looking in. Entering today, the Panthers are ranked 19th and the Outlaws are 23rd, both with several teams ahead of them in the pecking order for an at-large bid.
Enterprise head coach Lisa Farwell said Saturday’s match is about finishing well.
“We know based on our ranking that our match on Saturday isn’t for a state playoff berth,” she said. “At this point in the season it’s about pride. We want to put together our best match of the season to finish off the year.”
Teeter is happy her team is in a position to play for a playoff spot, but knows Union will be tough.
“We have worked to improve every week. We know they’re a solid team,” she said. “They have a lot of offensive weapons, but I feel like we’ve continued to improve. I think the nice thing about Saturday is we do have that shot to try to move on.”
Baxter said her squad is trying to focus on what it wants to do, which is play well.
“The girls’ focus right now is to play our game our way and maintain our focus,” she said. “They’ve had big goals from the beginning of the season.”
The math is a little bit easier in the Old Oregon League, where the four semifinalists — Powder Valley, Joseph, Griswold and Echo — meet in a more traditional format: four teams playing for three spots. That tournament is Saturday at La Grande High School.
Powder Valley, which won the OOL for the fourth year in a row, opens the tournament at 9 a.m. against Echo. The Badgers were almost untouchable in league play, going 13-1. That one loss, however, came against the Cougars on Oct. 6. The winner moves on to the final and garners an automatic berth to state.
“All the games are going to be tough,” Badgers head coach Marji Lind said. “We’re the ones with the big target on our backs. We know we have to take care of business. The girls are super focused.”
Griswold and Joseph follow in the second semifinal. The Eagles, who finished second in the regular season at 11-3, swept Griswold in the regular season — a five-set win at Helix in September and a sweep at home in October. The winner also earns a state playoff berth.
Joseph head coach Jill Hite said an injury just before the first match with Griswold caused the Eagles to make some late changes, and led in part to the first contest being close.
“We switched our offense the night before we played them. That was a big part,” she said.
The big question entering this tournament is if we’ll see a third matchup — possibly for the district title —
between Joseph and Powder Valley. The teams met twice during the regular season, and both matches were won by the Badgers. But both were also five-set thrillers.
“I love playing Powder. I’d play them all the time if we could,” Hite said. “We’re pretty evenly matched and it’s fun.”
Joseph had a 2-1 lead at home when the teams first met Sept. 21 before the Badgers rallied for a victory. Eight days later, the teams squared off in North Powder. Joseph came back from down 2-0 to send the match to a fifth set, which was taken by the Badgers, 18-16.
Lind said if the Badgers do end up meeting Joseph, they have a plan they’ll need to stay with to earn a third win.
“If we stick to it, we (won’t) get frazzled,” she said. “It’s going to come down to which team makes the fewest errors. They’re always fun matches (against Joseph).”
If either Joseph or Powder Valley — or both — falls into the third-place match, they would need to win to garner the final bid to state.