A year ago it was all about learning how to finish the job, and the Cascade Christian volleyball team pulled that off with ease in claiming the school’s first Class 3A state championship.

This year with a host of returners from that squad, the challenge is to not get complacent and remain grounded as the Challengers pursue a repeat championship.

Even though it may be early in the season, all indicators point to the notion that Cascade Christian is as hungry as ever under seventh-year head coach Rob Kleker.

The Challengers moved to 4-0 over the weekend after two straight-set victories over perennial 3A powers Vale and Creswell. Including wins over Coquille and Henley, Cascade Christian has yet to drop a set thus far.

“I think for us it’s just understanding where we came from,” Kleker said of his team’s early-season focus. “The group of kids that we have, they’re just never quite satisfied. They’re fantastic kids and they’re like, ‘Hey, we’re there to win and there to win every night,’ so it’s not like from a coaching standpoint I have to convince them they need to work hard to win.”

For all of Cascade Christian’s recent exploits — they still haven’t dropped a Southern Cascade League match in Kleker’s tenure and have gone a combined 80-11 between 2014 and now — there remains a chip on the Challengers’ shoulder as they seek to stamp themselves among that elite group in not only the 3A level but overall in Southern Oregon.

“I think we’re in a good place,” said Kleker, “but you can always be better.”

To help push his team, Kleker has worked to load up the Challengers’ schedule with as many tough matches as possible throughout the years. Whether it be Vale, Creswell, Santiam Christian or Salem Academy at the 3A level or other leading programs in their own classifications, Cascade Christian has used those matchups to sharpen its level of play.

It is that mantra that has Cascade Christian excited about competing again in Saturday’s Rogue Valley Classic at North Medford High after a recent absence.

“I’m just excited to use it as a measuring stick,” said Kleker, who was last year’s 3A coach of the year. “We have the feeling that we’re one of the best teams in the valley, if not the best, and we want to see where we’re at. And to get to play these top 5A and 6A schools will give us a great chance to see where we’re at.”

Despite the disparity in school size compared to all others in action, the Challengers certainly won’t be overlooked this weekend.

“Cascade Christian is a very good team, I don't care what level they're at,” said North Medford head coach Malcolm Munson.

Junior outside hitter Caroline McMahon was a second-team all-state selection last year with senior setter Allison Winter, while junior libero Aubrey Kievit earned a third-team nod in support of departed 3A player of the year Claire Hawkins.

That returning trio has been outstanding already this season, with co-captain McMahon really stepping into an even greater leadership role. Winter is the other captain.

“Carrie is almost relentless when it comes to her play and the way she wants to have success and perform every night,” said Kleker. “That makes it easy for me as a coach because she wants to prove it like that every night and her effort just demands that they all have to keep up.

Really they all just don’t give themselves any option other than to succeed.”

McMahon has been in double digits in kills for every match this season, with nearly 60 kills in four three-set matches. Winter has a lot to do with that with her efficient running of Kleker’s up-tempo attack, while South Medford senior transfer Alyssa Vaughn has been a steady complement on the outside thus far with sophomore right side Olivia Borg and junior middle hitters Gabbi Burton and Kaylee Cannon.

Defensive specialists Cassi Kammerzell (senior) and Madi Schwarz (sophomore) round out a talented Challenger rotation that has been reminded on many occasions that last year’s run is now a thing of the past.

“We constantly remind them that this is not last year’s team,” said Kleker. “We’re here to write our own story and let’s not rely on what we’ve done in the past, let’s spend every day working toward the future.”

“It’s hard to get kids to buy into that at least consistently,” he added, “and it’s still early in the year but for the most part these are grounded kids by nature anyway and still feel like they have something to prove. They know they have to step up to the challenge and continue to do it, and some days they’re even pushing me as a coach to make sure we’re challenging them every day.”

NORTH MEDFORD ALSO finds itself in a promising position heading into the aforementioned Rogue Valley Classic, sporting a 7-3 record and renewed enthusiasm throughout the program.

The Black Tornado has already eclipsed the total wins from 2014, when it went 5-14 overall, and is in prime position to break a string of three straight seasons where North has finished with a sub-.500 record.

"I hate to put the cart too far ahead of the horse,” said Munson, “but I do think we have great kids. They're great to be around and work extremely hard and are just awesome in all areas and that makes them easier to coach. Our kids have invested so much into their season so it's not a surprise in that way how we’re doing so far.”

Saturday’s Rogue Valley Classic will see play beginning at 8 a.m., with championship rounds around 4 or 5 p.m. at North Medford High. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for high school kids and children are free.

There will be four four-team pools in the 16-school event. Joining Cascade Christian and North Medford as featured teams in the tourney will be Foothill High out of California and top-10 teams in their respective power rankings: Ridgeview, Crater, Bend and McNary. For local fans, South Medford and Grants Pass will also be on hand.

Helping set the tone thus far for North Medford in Munson’s second season at the helm has been senior leaders Alex Barry (setter), Adriane McLemore (right side), Kiley Pauck (outside hitter) and Sydney Kloek (middle).

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry