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Phoenix volleyball on the rise under Murphy

Tom Murphy spent this past weekend in Sunriver, partly to relax and partly to take in the Clearwater Classic volleyball tournament in Bend that featured most of the top Class 4A teams in the state.

Murphy, the head coach at Phoenix High, has only been coaching volleyball for the past four years after spending more than a decade as the Pirates boys basketball coach.

"It's like going to a coaches clinic," Murphy says. "You learn some things from watching and other things from talking to coaches who really know their stuff."

Murphy admits there are times when he still feels like a fish out of water, but he must be doing something right. His Pirates have posted a 17-7 overall record and a 6-4 mark in the Skyline Conference heading into tonight's home match against Mazama.

The Pirates are talented enough to win the league championship, but they have the misfortune of playing in the same conference with two volleyball powers - top-ranked Lakeview and No. 2-ranked Henley.

Murphy's teams have never beaten either opponent, although the Pirates took a game off Henley earlier this season and pushed the Hornets to the limit last Tuesday before suffering a 15-11, 15-12 defeat.

"We've had five games against them, and we've been ahead in all five," Murphy says. "We just haven't been able to finish. It's like our girls bump into this mental glass ceiling. One of these days we're going to break through it, and once we do I don't think we'll have to deal with it anymore."

Phoenix has had less luck with Lakeview, but the Pirates get another crack at the state's No. — team on Oct. 25 in their own gym.

More than likely, the Pirates will end up in third place and their path to the Class 3A state tournament will be the same as last year: They'll have to win a league playoff match and then a sub-tournament district match to punch their ticket to state.

"Just getting out of this conference is a heck of an achievement," says Murphy, noting that Rogue River and North Valley have strong programs of their own. "If you can make it to the (state) tournament, you've got a good chance at making some noise, but getting there is difficult."

The Pirates have the right mix - talent, experience, confidence - for a return trip.

They've got one of the better setters in the state in Kelsey Russell, they've got one of the best outside hitters in the Skyline Conference in April Darvey, and they've got two excellent middles in Tiffany Ross and Kelly Meredith.

Throw in a couple of experienced defensive specialists - Jennifer Dunlap and Kacie Kantor - along with veteran right side Joni Mahon, and the Pirates have all the ingredients of a state caliber squad.

All seven of those players were in the Pirates' rotation last season, with Russell, Darvey and Ross gaining all-conference recognition.

"Russell has to be one of the top setters in the state," Murphy says of the 5-foot-9 junior. "She's got great hands, she distributes the ball very well and she can take a bad pass and turn it into gold.

"Everything revolves around her."

Darvey stands only 5-5 but uses her huge jump reach to pound down eight kills a game. Darvey is also one of the Pirates' top defensive players.

The 5-10 Ross, meanwhile, leads the team with 9.5 kills and 4.5 blocks per match.

Murphy was the head boys basketball coach at Phoenix from 1980-81 through '92-93, leading the Pirates to a pair of league titles and a runner-up finish at the 1992 Class 3A state tournament.

He stepped away to coach his son, Sean, at the youth level and didn't know if he'd ever coach at the high school level again.

But when his daughter, Janene, was a junior in 1998 and the volleyball job opened up, Murphy decided to give that sport a shot. (He also came back to coach the boys basketball team last season for one year only.)

"I knew so little at first that I barely knew how to get the kids rotated around the court," Murphy says. "The players knew more than I did."

But Murphy had the qualities all good coaches possess: He's well-organized, he communicates well with his players and he's anxious to learn.

And so, with help from junior varsity coach Steve Goodkin and freshman coach Allison French, he jumped in feet first.

There are no regrets.

"I love coaching girls," says Murphy. "They're receptive, enthusiastic and just a lot of fun to be around.

"They have high expectations of themselves and they're always wanting to know how to make themselves better."

"Which is why," Murphy adds with a laugh, "I keep having to go to these clinics."

THE 2002-2003 school year

will mark the next four-year cycle in which high schools in Oregon can move to new districts or classifications.

Few schools in Southern Oregon will be affected, but the Southern Cascade League will welcome Glendale, Riddle and Milo Academy into its circuit.

The SCL currently has only six schools: St. Mary's, Cascade Christian, Bonanza, Lost River and Chiloquin.

The Oregon School Activities Association met in Portland Monday to discus the proposal. It will be voted on by the OSAA's executive board on Dec. 5.