For the first time in three years, the La Grande Tigers volleyball team is back on top of the Greater Oregon League.
And after losing two players to injury in a match the night before, it truly took a team effort.
Jayce Seavert led the way with 19 kills and 35 digs, Presley Justice stepped into a key role to post 15 kills and 21 digs, and the Tigers topped the Baker Bulldogs in four sets, 26-24, 25-23, 22-25, 25-19, Thursday night in La Grande.
“I’m just really proud of how hard my kids battled tonight. All the chips were against us,” Head Coach Melinda Becker-Bisenius said. “They played hard. They did what I asked them to do. They played amazing tonight.”
The Tigers were without the services of both Claire Hardy and Riana Scott, who were hurt in the previous night’s match against Homedale, Idaho.
That forced several players to take on bigger roles, perhaps none bigger than Justice, who was largely filling in for Hardy, arguably La Grande’s top attacker.
And playing a position she wasn’t used to, no less.
“I’ve never played outside (hitter) before. What I normally play is right side, which is the opposite side of the court, so I felt a lot different,” the sophomore said. “I was really unfamiliar with it. I had a lot of help from my teammates. They helped tell me where to be and (gave) a lot of encouragement.”
Justice appeared to have no issues catching onto the role as she had a strong opening set with seven kills.
“I’m extremely proud of how hard she played,” Becker-Bisenius said of Justice. “It was awesome to see her step up, and we needed her to do that in that position.”
Despite the strong start from Justice, the Tigers were down 23-20 in a back-and-forth first set after an ace by Baker’s Abby Baker, and then 24-21 after an Avery Elms kill.
But two errors by the Bulldogs and then two kills by Justice — the first of which tied the score at 24-all after a lengthy rally — gave the Tigers the lead, and they took the set following a Bulldog error.
That rally to take the opening set was big in the eyes of Becker-Bisenius.
“We talked a lot about making sure that we take it one point at a time and never give up, even if the score is at game point,” the coach said.
The Tigers mounted a similar rally to take the second set, which found them down 22-20 after an error. Seavert put down three consecutive kills for the lead, and three points later Kenzie Williams tallied a kill for the set and a 2-0 advantage.
“We really focused on not getting in our heads and getting down,” Seavert said. “We were always like, ‘We have to get back in it. We’re not done yet. We’re still in this.’”
La Grande nearly staged a wild comeback to take the match in three sets, rallying from a 23-16 deficit to get within two points late before the Bulldogs forced a fourth set, but Becker-Bisenius said that late run helped going into the fourth set.
“We got down in a really big hole, but they fought out of that,” she said, “That gave us some momentum going into the fourth.”
A 5-2 run in the fourth set, capped by back-to-back kills by Jaiden Hafer and Williams, gave La Grande the lead for good at 17-14. Justice’s second ace of the night extended the lead later to 21-16, and Baker got no closer than four points the rest of the way.
Williams added a strong all-around game with 18 assists, 17 digs and nine kills for La Grande. Jacie Howton had 22 assists and 13 digs, and Felicity Houston tallied 28 digs.
La Grande (14-4 overall, 5-0 GOL) travels to the Seaside Tournament Saturday.
Homedale tops LHS
La Grande was handed just its fourth loss of the season Wednesday, falling at home in four sets to Homedale, Idaho, 21-25, 25-19, 25-14, 25-22.
Seavert had 10 kills and 17 digs to lead the Tigers. Houston also had 17 digs. Williams had 14 assists, 13 digs and five kills, Howton had 11 digs and 10 assists and Hafer recorded five blocks.