Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
Sometimes it's tough being the tall girl.
It takes years in school before the boys ever catch up to your level, and you're always pegged into a certain role whenever you start playing sports.
Elle Bixler knows that world all too well.
The North Medford senior recalls wearing a size 9 shoe back when she was still in elementary school — she's in an 11 now — and hit the 5-foot-9 mark by sixth grade.
When Bixler began tinkering around in volleyball as a second-grader, it was a no-brainer to exclusively place her in the front row. While that move definitely has served to create a comfort level at the net over the years, the 5-11 Bixler can't help but wonder what might have been had she been trained in all the positions on the court.
"I never really learned how to play defense because I was the tall girl and was just stuck in the front," says Bixler, who admits to being coordination-challenged until her freshman year. "That's the hard part now because I'm small-town tall. If I go to a big town or big college and want to play volleyball, I'm going to have to make up for my height with my vertical."
Fortunately for Bixler, she offers the complete package in the middle at North Medford. Beyond her height, she has an extra-long wing span and complements that with a vertical leap that allows her to reach up to 9-7 off the floor — just shy of a basketball rim.
"One of the things that's different about her is she has really long arms and has that reach that really helps in the middle, both attacking and blocking," says Black Tornado head coach Erika Wright. "She just plays well at the net and has great instincts because that's been her specialty."
Bixler will put those skills to the test with her North Medford teammates on Saturday as the Black Tornado joins with South Medford to host to the 24-team Rogue Valley Classic.
Pool play games begin at 8 a.m., with bracket play beginning around 1:30 p.m. Other local teams involved will be Grants Pass, Eagle Point, Ashland and Crater, with some of the tournament's top teams including Crook County, Roseburg and Bend.
"There are some really high quality teams that are competing," Wright says of the annual tournament. "Every tournament that we go into we have the goal of being at least top two in our pool and then whatever bracket we're in we try to win it. Our goal doesn't change tournament to tournament."
North Medford's pool includes Churchill, Aloha and Redmond, while South Medford's pool includes Willamette, Sunset and Marshfield.
In its most recent tournament, the Roseburg Invitational, North Medford fared well in pool play before coming up short in the first round of championship bracket play against Grants Pass. The Black Tornado enters this weekend on a roll, however, having scored convincing wins over Ashland and Eagle Point over the past week to go with a few days of extra practice time.
As one of only three seniors on the roster — outside hitter Keisha Williams and libero Katy Carter are the others — Bixler says she's doing her best to take leadership examples from past teammates to help her propel the current Tornado cast.
"I think leadership-wise she really challenges the other girls to play hard and play their best and I like that in her," says Wright. "It's something that's really come on this year with her maturity as a senior and recognizing what she wants to accomplish individually as well as for the team."
Bixler is a three-year starter who has been at the varsity level since she was a freshman. Her hope is to convey what it takes to compete for North without impinging on her teammates' passion.
"I try to be laid back and just keep my cool and smile and say, 'It's OK,' if something doesn't exactly go the way it should," says the 17-year-old. "There's a time when everybody needs to step up but I really put it on me to make sure that everyone's positive."
Bixler was named second-team all-SOH last year after leading the Black Tornado with 37 blocks and 189 kills. The 4.0 student is averaging eight kills per match for North Medford, which is 3-1 in regular matches, and consistently leads the team in hitting percentage.
"This year she's become more versatile in the offense, and we're running some different things with quicker paced sets that she's running way more effectively than before," says Wright. "For a middle to be our kill leader is pretty tough because you really have to have good ball control. Generally, the ball is set outside at the high school level so those kids are typically your kill leaders."
Bixler says she's been fortunate to have been surrounded by talented players ever since she took the floor at North Medford, and this year is no different. Outside hitters Williams, sophomore Emily Carter and freshman Ashley Ripplinger have come up big, with junior setter Taylor Otoski guiding the offense and senior libero Katy Carter playing a key role when she takes over for Bixler once her front-row duties are complete.
If anything, Bixler says, she's excited about how she continues to grow in the sport of volleyball.
"My blocking has gotten the most improved from what I've seen," she says, "but I've also been working a lot on placement of the ball when I hit and being up on time and faster than the other team's block."
And when you're a tall girl, there is that one advantage of pumping up everyone when you rise up and block an opponent's attack.
"That's a great feeling," Bixler says with a laugh. "Especially when the crowd goes wild and your whole team goes crazy, it's amazing. That's probably why I play volleyball, it's something to live for and so rewarding."
One thing that has helped Bixler's development on the court is her work off of it. Her track and field workouts have been instrumental, and her hobby as an artist offers a chance to get away from it all and recharge her battery.
Last year, Bixler soared 33 feet, 21/4 inches in the triple jump and reached 102-9 in the javelin during the district meet.
"Triple jump helps a lot with my vertical and throwing the javelin has helped my hitting arm so much," she says. "I wish my whole team would do that, too, because I think it builds up a lot of strength, but it also helps the mental aspects since playing an individual sport complements team sports so much."
As for her art fancy, Bixler says she deals mostly in acrylic paints but is also keen on linoleum prints. A favorite is taking photographs of a landscape or other scenery and then trying to replicate it on paper.
"It's something to do and I'm definitely not as good at it as I'd like to be," she says, "but whether I'm having a hard time or stressed, I can just let it all go and focus on whatever I'm painting."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry