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Sense of triumph not lost on Tornado netters

State championships are special, but you don't necessarily need them to prove that your team is special.

That was the sentiment floating around the North Medford volleyball camp this past weekend as the Black Tornado capped its best season in school history with a runner-up finish to West Linn at Liberty High School in Hillsboro.

The tears shed Saturday in the moments that followed North Medford's first five-game loss of the season were not tears of loss, according to head coach Ron Beick, rather on what the girls had gained during their remarkable run.

The No. 3-ranked Black Tornado upset top-ranked Jesuit in four games during Friday's quarterfinals, then returned a few hours later to dispose of defending state champion Gresham in five games to set up Saturday's finale with West Linn.

"This was a huge step forward," Beick said Monday in the midst of several congratulatory phone calls. "The girls knew they had accomplished a tremendous number of things."

And best of all, they earned it all through their own hard work and dedication to the program.

"The kids know full well that every Gresham player plays (volleyball) all year round, and every Jesuit kid and every Central Catholic kid and so on," said Beick of the large club teams that fuel the state's top prep programs. "They know we're already behind in terms of experience and number of touches on the ball. What we talk about is we just make up for it by working harder every day."

"We have to get more out of our shorter seasons than they get," he added. "But what's nice is (this year's runner-up finish) shows if you dedicate yourselves to that, it can work."

It's been a developing process for Beick and company, certainly not an overnight success story.

For the past 20 years the Black Tornado has toiled through a large-school classification dominated by the likes of Gresham, Central Catholic, West Linn, Jesuit and Barlow.

When Beick took over the volleyball program for the 1994 season, like any coach, state championships were the ultimate goal.

But if you could snap your fingers and make it happen the sporting world wouldn't be what it is today, providing the wonder and emotion that only live theater provides.

The Black Tornado had a fourth-place showing in 1993 to open the door for greater things, and under Beick the team finished sixth in 1997 and third in 1998 to continue that evolution.

A key to the puzzle came in the years to follow, with Beick toying with the notion of significantly changing his defensive system by adopting a blocking philosophy that had showed promise in the Olympics and at the college level in the late 1980s.

To make it happen would require the right type of athlete, and he finally felt good about making the switch a few years ago when players like Lauren Berger, Erica Schultz and Whitney Hodnett began cutting their teeth in his program.

The move to swing blocking, where players turn sideways and float to their blocking assignment as opposed to traditional lateral movements, has been gradual but has brought steady results. In Berger's senior campaign last year, North Medford finished third at the Class 6A state tournament to equal the program's best finish.

A year more experienced in the new blocking system, this year's group took their defensive game to new levels en route to a Southwest Conference championship and 31-6 overall record.

"I know our blocking statistically improved significantly, and that was a key in how we beat Jesuit," said Beick. "We definitely did a phenomenal job of playing defense, and Jaci (Abeloe) and Kellie (Satterfield) had absolutely tremendous weekends going to another level in their play."

And in the end, as Beick was quick to point out, it's the kids and not the scheme that really makes it all work.

North Medford was blessed with tremendous senior leadership, beginning with SWC player of the year Hodnett and moving through the likes of setter Natalie Lorenz, middle hitters Megan Bartling and Kyle Jolley, outside hitters Schultz and Satterfield and defensive specialist Ashley Arnold.

"The final key for us was what a great team they were," Beick said of the Tornado. "Everything you would want as a coach in terms of how they worked together, cared for each other and supported each other was there. They were the epitome of team."

And although this year's group will be tough to match, Beick said his four returners have already begun talking about getting back to the state tournament and propelling the North program over its final hurdle. Juniors Abeloe and Andrea Egge will return as outside hitters, while junior setter Mackenzie Smith and sophomore outside hitter Hillevi Johnson hope to jell with a talented JV squad that, for the first time in Beick's tenure, won three tournament titles this past season.

"They're already talking about what we have to do to get back and immediately thinking about the roles that need to be filled," the coach said of his returners. "Everybody loves being in that situation. It's so exciting and motivating when you're coming off a season like we've had."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com