Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
Unbeknownst to Rob Kleker, one of the greatest volleyball players to ever suit up for him lived just a few houses down.
The two strangers from the same Eagle Point neighborhood would eventually help guide Cascade Christian to three straight Southern Cascade Hybrid titles.
Funny, Kleker says, how things work out. Years earlier, his Eagle Point youth club team had gone up against Karlee Britton's squads. She was just another opponent then.
"The funny thing is, she lives right around the corner," Kleker says.
And as peacefully as they live in their respective homes, the pair has made noise in the league.
Britton, the defending SCH player of the year, picked up right where she left off despite offseason hip surgery. The 5-foot-11 senior outside hitter, whom Kleker says has one of the "livest" arms he's ever witnessed, leads the Challengers in kills (205) and is second in aces (45) and digs (146).
Kleker, meanwhile, has won the last two conference coach of the year honors.
"I love playing for Rob," Britton says. "He is just an all-around good coach. He's easy-going and super approachable."
The two begin one last run together as Cascade Christian (16-8) travels to play Nyssa (18-6) in the first round of the Class 3A state playoffs at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
The Bulldogs finished in second place in the Eastern Oregon League.
The winner will advance to the 3A quarterfinals at Lane Community College Nov. 8.
State competition hasn't been friendly to the Challengers during Britton's career. Last fall, Valley Catholic beat Cascade Christian, 25-23, 25-14, 26-28, 25-19, in the quarterfinals. In 2011, the Challengers fell to eventual champion Burns, 25-22, 25-17, 25-10, in the quarterfinals and, in 2010, lost to eventual champion Santiam Christian, 25-12, 25-13, 25-13 in the first round.
Cascade Christian missed its shot at a home playoff match after losing to second-place Lakeview in the SCH final earlier this month.
Kleker says he hopes his nonleague schedule helped prepare his squad for its upcoming road test. One victory that gives the Challengers some optimism was a three-set triumph over defending 2A state champion Culver (24-2) at the Corbett tournament on Oct. 19.
"The key for us is going up to state with the right state of mind," Kleker says. "Those are matches we can win and teams we can compete with. .... (The win over Culver) made pretty good headway with the kids."
Playing with a bunch of your friends helps, Britton says.
"Honestly the team has a lot of good chemistry," she says. "There is not any drama. We all work well together and have the same goals."
The 18-year-old Britton is relied upon, Kleker says. The captain and four-year varsity player dominates the group in the kills category with an efficient 41 percent kill percentage. She is second on the team in passing based on a system Kleker uses that ranks a pass from 0 to 3 (a zero is unplayable and a three is perfect). Britton owns a 2.05 rating.
"Even last year and especially this year, we seem to go the way Karlee goes," Kleker says. "You don't always necessarily like that, but when she is playing well and feeling it, we are fine.
"She has always had the live arm. We have made little tweaks, but she has gotten bigger and stronger."
Britton — who plays two rotations on the left and one on the right for Cascade Christian — had surgery on a hip just a week after last year's state tournament. After being on crutches for two weeks and getting through six total months of recovery, Britton joined the club for open gym activities.
Some pain still lingers, Britton says, but she's willing to play through it.
"I still feel it," she says, "but I love volleyball so I play through it."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on facebook at facebook.com/danjonesmt