Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
PHOENIX — Haleigh Wagman and a new volleyball season arrived at the same time, in September of 1997.
When Haleigh was one week old, her father Adam Wagman brought her to Ashland High's match against Mazama. Adam looked on from the stands with Haleigh by his side that night. He was the Grizzlies' junior varsity coach at the time. Former Ashland head coach John Weston filled in for him as he took a rare week off 15 years ago to be with his baby and wife Lori.
Little did Adam know then that the two would share many more moments together because of volleyball.
Haleigh, who is just 15 and a freshman at Phoenix High, has played a large role in the Pirates' revival. Phoenix, with a mix of one senior, four juniors, four freshmen and two sophomores, is 17-5 overall and set to host Sutherlin (17-5) in the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs tonight.
The Pirates clinched their first Skyline Conference championship since 2004 — when head coach Shonda Bursk was a senior setter for Phoenix — with a significant victory over Hidden Valley on Oct. 23. The program had compiled a 50-89-7 record since 2005, when it last had a winning season.
Behind the turnaround has been Bursk, who took over in 2010, and her collection of players, including Wagman. The outside hitter is the squad's dominant kills leader with 136. She has also succeeded at the service line, where she has 245 attempts, a 0.939 serve percentage, 15 errors and 31 aces.
"She wants to get that kill," says teammate Ashlyn Flynn.
Wagman's immediate impact has surprised few. Most who know Haleigh know Adam, who has been involved in volleyball for many years. Currently an assistant at Southern Oregon University, the Ashland High graduate competed on a club team at SOU as a student in the early 1990s. The squad captured two titles in three years in a 25-school conference that is now defunct. He went on to coach at Ashland High and Crater.
Along with his role with the Raiders, Adam is also club coach.
When Haleigh, his first child, was born, Adam hoped she would be interested in the sport.
"But we always said we would let our kids decide what they want to do," he adds.
Haleigh did want to play. She began playing on a club team in the fifth grade and, ever since, her schedule has been filled with volleyball.
Adam is never far away. He first coached Haleigh in seventh grade and is always available for advice and encouragement.
"When he picks me up from practice he always says, 'How was practice?'" Haleigh says. "I say, 'It was good.' He'll say, 'What made it good?'"
Adam says he gives full credit to Haleigh for her success though.
"The big thing is she has made the most of opportunities," he says. "She puts in a lot of work."
So have her teammates.
Other key contributors this year have been junior setter Flynn, junior middle blocker Baylee Toney, freshman setter Karlie Richardson, junior outside hitter Hailey Wyncoop, junior middle blocker Bailee Tally and senior right-side hitter Delanie Tally.
"We have a really good group of kids," Bursk says. "Very good character kids."
And very young kids.
"We have three freshmen that play and a fourth that rotates in," Bursk says. "That is a big jump going from middle school to high school, but they've played a lot of club and gone to a lot of tournaments."
Flynn owns 99 kills and 111 digs, Toney 65 kills, 22 solo blocks and 16 assisted blocks and Richardson a team-best 144 assists and 41 aces. Wyncoop has collected 85 kills and Bailee Tally owns a team-high 114 digs for Phoenix, which went 5-14 and 2-8 in league play in 2010. Last year, the Pirates were 8-13 and 5-5 in Skyline action.
But this fall, Phoenix won its first four matches and was victorious in six of its last seven.
Perhaps the biggest triumph of all was the 25-23, 27-25, 25-21 victory over the Mustangs in Murphy 11 days ago. The league crown was at stake in the regular-season finale.
The Pirates played a high-energy game of Catch Phrase during the drive to Hidden Valley.
"Normally we sleep, but Shonda didn't want anybody sleeping," Haleigh recalls.
Haleigh served out the final point that evening, though she didn't know it.
"I didn't even know it was over," she recalls. "I had gotten in this rhythm and went back to serve again because I thought we had to keep going. Then I see my teammates jumping up and I'm like, 'Sweet, it's over.'" She quickly joined the "team mosh pit".
After the victory, the squad celebrated at a pizzeria in Medford.
"We were so happy," Flynn says.
Haleigh only recently became an outside hitter. She has mostly played middle, but was moved during the eighth-grade club season with mOcean, a club directed by SOU head coach Josh Rohlfing.
"It's like in basketball going from playing with your back to the basket to moving out on the perimeter," Adam says of his daughter's position change. "There is a big difference in skill set and she has picked it up well."
Says Haleigh: "My goal is to minimize mistakes the best I can."
She hasn't committed many with the Pirates, whose growing stability excites the 25-year-old Bursk, a lifelong Pirate with deep ties to the school. Her dad was a state wrestler at Phoenix, her mom a softball player, her husband a coach, her brother a former standout and a handful of aunts and uncles who made their mark.
Along the rebuilding path, Bursk says she has valued the advice of her old coach, Tom Murphy, and assistant Steve Goodkin. Murphy led Phoenix to a 12-0 record in conference play, the school's first Skyline title since 1987 and a sixth-place trophy at the Class 3A state tournament in 2004.
"After Tom retired, the program struggled for a long time, and he ran a really wonderful program," says Bursk, who operated as a co-head coach with Ashley Crenshaw in 2010 and 2011. Now Bursk has the reigns to herself with Crenshaw focusing on her family. "When we took over the program the seniors had had a new coach every single year."
Now all that has changed.
"To be a winner again," says Bursk, who is a hairdresser in Medford, "it's incredible. Now they have that taste in their mouth to want to be successful, that extra pep in their step to be proud to play for Phoenix."
And with plenty of players set to return next year, there may be more success in store.
"I have thought a lot about the future," Richardson says. "I am looking forward to it."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org