Watch the eyes of a good setter, Cascade Christian head volleyball coach Rob Kleker advises.
“You see an excitement in their eyes when something positive happens,” he says. “That is a telltale sign of a good leader.”
A few feet away, senior setter Alyssa Brown is enjoying a casual drill with her squad at Cascade Christian High.
She’s got that special something, Kleker says, and it has helped propel the Challengers to one of their greatest regular seasons yet. Seventh-seeded Cascade Christian is 23-2 entering Friday’s Class 3A quarterfinal match against No. 2 Vale (24-2) at 3:15 p.m. at Forest Grove High.
The winner will face the victor of the Glide/Santiam Christian match later that evening in the semifinals.
The Challengers, who went 8-0 in the Southern Cascade League, are 40-0 in league action since Kleker became the head coach five seasons ago. Now the program is hoping to get a shot at its first appearance in the state finals since 2009 and first-ever state title.
Behind much of the success stands Brown, the two-time SCL setter of the year and also this season’s conference player of the year. She has led the program in assists (527) with a selfless approach and the heart of a lion, Kleker says.
He first met Brown when she was a freshman. The coach could tell even then that she had the qualities of a leader.
The 5-foot-6 Brown embraced the role of setter her sophomore campaign and has never looked back, adding to her arsenal of skills and maturing into someone all her teammates trust.
This fall, Brown has averaged 21 assists per match and has 23 aces serving.
The only one on the team who did not vote for Brown to become the captain at the beginning of the year was herself.
“What you envision from your setter is for them to be your floor general, the kid who is willing to challenge their teammates and someone who is excited when other people do well,” Kleker says. “It’s not what everybody sees when they come to the game: they see the kills and the blocks and the really fancy stuff. The setter takes the pass from the back row and then she is literally setting up the hitter.”
Rewinding further back, Brown began playing volleyball in the fourth grade at Grace Christian. She has been to state twice at Cascade Christian, including last fall when the Challengers took third.
Brown was in the stands when Santiam Christian beat Cascade Christian, 25-9, 25-16, 25-16, in the 2009 state finals.
Away from the volleyball court, the 17-year-old Brown participates in basketball and track and field, leads team devotionals and excels in the classroom.
Oh, and she’s got some great dance moves too, freshman teammate Caroline McMahon adds.
“She’s just an amazing young woman,” Kleker says. “It’s fun to have kids like that and my entire team is full of those.”
What makes volleyball Brown’s favorite sport is the constant support shown during match play.
“A lot of it is you get to celebrate each point,” she says.
Suffice it to say, the players have had plenty of reasons to party.
Cascade Christian’s only two setbacks this year came against undefeated Creswell. Even then, the Challengers were up 2 sets to 1 and leading the fourth set, 22-19, before coming undone in their first meeting with the Bulldogs, a season-opening five-set loss.
Cascade Christian has won six straight matches and had a 17-match streak snapped on Oct. 17 at the Corbett Tournament, when it ran into Creswell the second time. The Challengers, who have 209 aces as a team, are tied with the Bulldogs for the fewest sets lost at the 3A level with 7.
The club features just two other seniors in Ellie Brown and Tiani Alvarez, along with two juniors (Claire Hawkins and Karisa Waldron), four sophomores (Allison Winter, Cassidi Kammerzell, Kara Ash and Sophia Sellers) and four freshmen (Danae Brown, who is Alyssa’s sister, Aubrey Kievit, Kaylee Cannon and McMahon).
Hawkins has a team-high 218 kills with a 58.9 kill percentage, Brown owns 170 kills with a 62.4 percentage and McMahon has collected 136 kills and 57 aces.
McMahon and Kievit have stepped up big for only being freshmen, Brown says. The squad is a well-oiled machine collectively, she adds. The depth of their bond can be seen after each point.
“Every time we go to the middle, every point, it’s like ‘Yes!’” Brown says. “Sometimes I’ll be the one to lead it, but I haven’t had to so much this year because the team is always right there.
“It’s not just the talent, but we have a heart for the game. You have to want it. That is a big key in sports.”
A lot of credit goes to Brown, McMahon says.
“She has such a passion and is extremely encouraging and such a great role model on and off the court,” she says. “She’s a very, very good captain.”
The Challengers’ next foe — the Vikings — won the Eastern Oregon League with a 6-0 record. They are coached by Shannon Steele. Vale’s only losses came against Banks and Skyview of Idaho.
The goal now, Kleker says, is to stay hungry. So far, that hasn’t been a problem.
“A lot of it is you have to keep your kids wanting more,” Kleker says. “I think the kids now feel like they have a chance to do something special.”
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email email@example.com. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt