Athletic directors at the Class 5A level have proven to be the most invested in controlling their own playoff destiny since a switch to the...
They may share the same name, but there's really not much else that's similar between North Medford volleyball standouts Emily Carlson and Emily Carter.
One's a senior (Carlson) and the other's a freshman (Carter).
One of the outside hitters is left-handed (Carlson) and the other swings from the right side (Carter).
And although Carlson is older, Carter carries a height and leaping advantage over her peer.
However you look at it, Carlson and Carter differ — in characteristics, mind you, not attitude — and that's one of the reasons why they've enjoyed such early season success for the Black Tornado.
"I think we complement each other really well," says the 17-year-old Carlson, in her third varsity campaign. "Just the fact that we're almost complete opposites throws off opponents, obviously, and makes us work together well because we have such different things to offer."
In her first year at the varsity level, Carter boasts a team-best 41 kills to go with a .298 attack percentage and 10 digs in 16 regular season games. Carlson is not far off the pace with 35 kills and 15 digs in 17 games, and the duo continue to push each other to accomplish even more.
"I think we balance each other pretty well," says the 14-year-old Carter, who stands one inch taller than Carlson at 5-foot-10. "We're both willing to work as hard as we need to in order to do something and play as hard as we can everytime we're out there."
It's a combination that will be put to the test this weekend when North Medford plays host to the 27th annual Rogue Valley Classic. The 32-team volleyball tournament, which features a handful of top-10 programs from the Class 6A and 5A levels, begins at 8 a.m. Saturday with pool play and continues until championship matches at 5 p.m. Admission is free.
Matches are being played at North Medford and Central high schools, with championship bracket play (top 16 teams) in the afternoon at North while silver and bronze bracket play (eight teams apiece) will be in the afternoon at Central.
"I love tournaments," says North Medford head coach Erika Wright. "We always have tried to do really well in the Rogue Valley Classic and have always been able to make it to the championship bracket since I've been a head coach and assistant coach here."
Last year's championship match between Crook County and Westview had to be canceled due to time constraints after Classic officials tried to use three venues and soon found out what challenges that can bring. Such a finish isn't expected this year, and Westview is among a host of returners and top challengers that includes Barlow, Roseburg, Aloha, Sunset, West Albany, Marshfield and Southridge.
Local teams South Medford, Crater, Grants Pass, Ashland, Eagle Point, Phoenix, St. Mary's, Cascade Christian and Rogue River also will be competing.
For North Medford to make headway among such good competition, Wright says her squad will definitely need solid outings from Carlson and Carter.
"Those two Emilys are definitely helping us quite a bit," says Wright. "It's cool to have a senior and a freshman that you're riding on like them but it kinda gives us a nice one-two punch. For three rotations you have to block right and then three rotations you have to do the same for the left."
It's that back-and-forth nature of things and the moments of doubt North Medford is able to create on how to defend the Tornado's attack that really has proven beneficial thus far.
"It just throws them off because it changes every time," says Carlson. "They can't camp on the righty because it may come up with the lefty."
And that doesn't even include the work of junior middle blocker Elle Bixler, who has battled some injuries but still boasts 27 kills and a team-best .364 attack percentage. All have been steered along by senior setter Telsche Munson, who has 124 assists, 12 kills, 30 digs and a .300 attack percentage.
Senior libero Ashley Smith has accounted for a team-high 82 digs and 14 aces to go with only nine errors in 99 receive chances. Smith and Munson also provide the key emotional leadership for the squad, which has also gotten 13 kills, 30 digs and seven aces from junior defensive specialist/outside hitter Katy Carter — Emily's older sister — and 10 aces and 19 digs from junior outside hitter Keisha Williams.
"In my four years at North, I think the team we have is the closest off the court as well as on the court, and that's made a real difference for us, too," says Carlson. "I honestly think that we have the potential to go as far as any team that has ever been at North. The state tournament is definitely an option for us. We just have to have perseverance and make sure that as a team we're always playing our game and not letting the other team control the emotional parts of the game, which are just as big."
Carlson has shown the most growth in that latter aspect, according to Wright, and that's helped set up a good start to her senior campaign.
"One of the things I've really liked about her is she has matured so much since last year in the way she plays and in the way she responds to things on the court," says the coach.
Emily Carter's emergence this season seemed almost predestined. As Katy Carter's younger sister, she already had an in with most of the varsity squad and only served to seal that relationship last year during the club season when she played with the group as an eighth grader.
"She just really fits in well and has integrated herself into all of our lives in all our aspects," says Carlson. "She handles it all really well and we all have a really good trust in each other. We know that if she's struggling, we have the tools and abilities to bring her up emotionally and it's also important that we know that we're all out there together working to accomplish our goals."
The Carters' mother, Jennifer, was a volleyball player at Oregon State, so the talent base is definitely there to call upon. The thing that most have found remarkable is how poised the younger Carter has remained through it all this season.
"She's a rock," says Wright. "She's so consistent, things just don't faze her. She has touched a lot of volleyballs in her life so it's all very natural to her."
Consider Carlson among the impressed as well for how Carter is shouldering such a load as a freshman.
"I couldn't have even imagined," Carlson says on if the roles had been switched and she was asked to do as much in her first year at high school. "When I was a freshman, I was definitely a deer caught in the headlights. What she's done and the way she's handled it is really awesome, and professional, really."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry