Cascade Christian’s volleyball team enters tonight’s Southern Cascade League finale at St. Mary’s High with a pretty impressive streak under sixth-year head coach Rob Kleker.
But as much as the Challengers want to prevail — they’ve never lost a regular season SCL match in Kleker’s tenure — the true mark of their season is still to come.
Still, what Cascade Christian has accomplished thus far is pretty special.
Coming off a championship in the Corbett Tournament, in which the Challengers twice beat one of the top Class 4A teams in Banks, Cascade Christian has amassed an impressive 24-1 record heading into the 6:30 p.m. clash today against the Crusaders (14-12, 6-1 SCL).
Another top 4A program, Henley, was an early victim, and the Challengers boast triumphs over rival Creswell along with fellow 3A powers Coquille, Santiam Christian and Salem Academy. Local programs Crater, Eagle Point and Phoenix have also been dispatched by Cascade Christian, which has dropped only six sets all season.
“Honestly, I think it just speaks to their preparation in the offseason,” Kleker said Monday of his team’s 2016 success. “These are kids who are extremely dedicated to the game. They play year-round, play on club teams and in open gyms and are working in the summer when it’s legal for them to do so. And it all just kind of pays off for them.”
Beyond obvious talent, added Kleker, there’s an additional quality to this squad that has paid big dividends thus far.
“There’s an intangible piece with this team, too,” he said. “These kids, they just click. They understand their strengths and their weaknesses and who’s going to get the kill in the big moment.”
Leading the charge has been senior outside hitter Claire Hawkins and sophomore outside hitter Caroline McMahon, with junior Allison Winter running the show for the first time with considerable aplomb.
McMahon holds a slight team lead in kills at 216 overall for an average of 3.3 kills per set, with an impressive .518 kill percentage. Hawkins missed a match earlier this year but still boasts 215 kills for an average of 3.4 kills per set to go with a whopping .597 kill percentage.
Winter has served for 58 of the Challengers’ 183 aces, and her 592 assists average out to 9.2 per set.
“We really try to play as fast as we can but also try to attack teams with our serves,” said Kleker. “We feel like those are probably the two biggest advantages we have with the speed we play at and how aggressive we are.”
The Challengers are hitting .886 from the service line, led by 5-10 senior opposite hitter Eeklyn Magee (.956), Winter (.921) and 5-3 sophomore Aubrey Kievit (.923), whom Kleker said may be one of the best liberos in the state.
Hawkins led the Challengers in kills last season and was a central figure in guiding her team to a 23-2 regular season — both losses to Creswell — and a repeat SCL title. The 6-foot-1 standout was a second-team all-state tournament selection last year.
The 5-7 McMahon has grown leaps and bounds in her second season at outside hitter, using her near 30-inch vertical leap to provide a nice complement to Hawkins. Earlier this year, McMahon posted a career-high 25 kills against Coquille.
“They both really, really have improved as hitters,” said Kleker. “Those two have that mental component where the ball is coming to me and I’m going to put it away. That doesn’t mean we don't have other kids do it from time to time, but I would say we go to our outsides when we need a kill or that big play.”
Senior middle blocker Karisa Waldron, who stands 5-9, has provided a steady complement to her perimeter pals, joining Magee with 104 kills (1.5 per set) to go with a .526 kill percentage. Kleker said Waldron has really taken her game up a notch in recent weeks.
“We were good last year but I think we may be a better attacking team this year,” said Kleker. “We’re able to play so much faster because we have so many attackers on the floor at one time. If we can put three kids on the floor capable of nine kills or more like we have, you don’t know who to block, and that makes us a very productive team.”
With 5-10 sophomore middle Gabby Burton and 5-6 junior defensive specialist Cassidi Kammerzell rounding out Kleker’s top-eight rotation, the Challengers have all it takes to contend for a 3A state title.
But, then again, they’ve been here before.
Last year, the Challengers had high hopes as they advanced to the state tournament for the fourth time in five years under Kleker, but a quarterfinals loss to eventual champion Vale derailed the squad and it went 0-2 at state for the third time in his tenure.
“Last year when we lost that first match to Vale, I think it stung us a little bit,” said Kleker, who guided the Challengers to a third-place showing in 2014. “We had made up our minds that we were going to be playing Creswell in the state championship, that was our goal, but we ran into a buzzsaw in Vale with the state player of year (then-sophomore Preslee Jensen).”
It didn’t take long for Cascade Christian’s returning players to find their way back into the gym, with a reinvigorated purpose.
“They just went back at it and the kids said this is how we prepared last year and this time we’re going to do it right and make sure we take it all the way,” said Kleker. “I definitely think what happened to us last year was motivation kind of moving forward. They have this stinging feeling in the back of their heads where it’s I don’t want to feel that again, I want to end on a win.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry