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Challengers net first state title

From the moment Cascade Christian’s volleyball team was unceremoniously bounced from last year’s Class 3A state tournament in a winless showing, the Challengers had been plotting their revenge.

They took all that disappointment and rolled it into their offseason preparation, and Saturday offered the Challengers a fitting payoff for their efforts.

Making only their second appearance in a state championship match in program history, the Challengers were able to overcome their nemesis Creswell in a three-set nail-biter to claim their first ever state title, 25-23, 25-20, 25-23 at Forest Grove High School.

“It’s exciting both personally and obviously for our team and our school,” said sixth-year Cascade Christian head coach Rob Kleker. “It’s exciting to get that first state championship, we’ve talked about this literally from the first day of practice. They weren’t happy how we did last year and how we finished so that was our goal from Day 1. We talked about getting the next one and then on to the next one until finally coming through again tonight.”

Cascade Christian 6-foot-1 senior outside hitter Claire Hawkins was named to the all-tournament first team after posting 13 kills against Creswell, while 5-8 sophomore outside hitter Caroline McMahon was also a first-team selection after posting a team-high 15 kills with a .519 attack percentage.

Earning second-team all-tournament honors were 5-9 junior setter Allison Winter, who had 35 assists and four aces against Creswell, and 5-3 sophomore libero Aubrey Kievit.

For Hawkins, it was really easy to pinpoint what propelled her team to a breakout campaign this time around. The second-seeded Challengers finished the year with an impressive 31-1 record, losing a total of only seven sets this season.

“We came together at the beginning of this season, during workouts and weight training,” said Hawkins, who was a second-team all-tourney pick last year. “This is a really fun team. We just play our own game and don’t worry about what’s going on on the other side of the net.”

That sensibility paid off big Saturday against a Creswell squad that was making its third straight appearance in the state finals and had swept top-seeded Glide in Friday’s semifinals. The fourth-seeded Bulldogs (24-8) pinned the only two regular season losses on Cascade Christian in 2015 in a 23-4 campaign, and proved to be the only team to get the better of the Challengers earlier this season when they swept a two-set championship final in the Creswell Tournament on Oct. 8.

“One of the things we talked about with the kids was that we need to be prepared because this was a stage that was new to us but very familiar to them,” said Kleker of the finals. “We knew it was going to be tight because we’ve played each other so much, we’re pretty familiar with each other and have a good idea of what they’re going to do and they know what we’re going to do.”

In the end, according to Kleker, it was all about the Challengers making big plays when it mattered most.

“It was almost like they willed us to win,” Kleker said of his players. “We needed to get a kill and they would get a kill. It was all on them. We give them the flexibility to determine what adjustments they need to make and they just went out and made it happen.”

“We had quality kills and timely kills from both Caroline McMahon and Claire Hawkins at the end of sets,” he added, “and the kids just got used to the fact that that was where they were able to go when it got tight.”

The first set offered a back-and-forth feel until Cascade Christian was able to pull it out in the end. In the second set, the Challengers built a 6-0 cushion on serving by Winter but Creswell answered with six straight points to create some tension before Cascade Christian ultimately went up 21-15 and cruised to a key 2-0 advantage.

“After that we talked about just trying to increase our intensity going into that third set,” said Kleker. “The last thing we really wanted to do was give them any life so they could go on into that fourth set with momentum.”

There wasn’t much breathing room in the third set but Hawkins ultimately was able to serve for match point with her team up 24-22. An uncharacteristic service out of bounds gave Creswell a chance to serve its way back into the match, but the ensuing serve also sailed out of bounds to set off a celebration among the Challenger faithful.

“It was just sheer joy after that,” said Kleker. “The kids were jumping up and down, and we were jumping up and down excited for them. It’s really fun to watch an entire season’s worth of work come down to that final point and watch the joy in their eyes and see them rewarded for all they’ve put in during the offseason.”

Cascade Christian placed third in 2014 under Kleker, with its only other trophies coming in 2009 (second in 3A), 2008 (third in 3A) and 2000 (eighth in 2A). The Challengers have advanced to the state tournament in five of the six seasons during his tenure.

“From a performance standpoint, I don’t think there’s anything that compares to bringing home a state championship, let alone the first one in school history,” said Kleker. “It’s pretty humbling to coach a team and win a state championship like that. It’s something I don’t think any of us will ever forget.”

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

The Cascade Christian volleyball team celebrates after capturing the Class 3A state title on Saturday at Forest Grove High. PHOTO BY NORM MAVES
Cascade Christian senior Claire Hawkins goes for a kill against Creswell on Saturday. PHOTO BY NORM MAVES