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PREP NOTEBOOK: These Crater girls are killing it

Truth be told, this story could have been written a year ago.

Brimming with young talent, the Crater volleyball team had every expectation in the world to take the Class 5A ranks by storm and possibly make a little school history.

Injuries ruined that narrative in 2017, but not the Comets’ resolve.

With many of the same faces back in the fold, Crater has built on that promise with a spectacular start to 2018, sporting a 14-1 overall record and 11-0 standard in Midwestern League play entering Tuesday’s home match against Churchill.

“With this group, a core of them have played together for a long time so they’ve kind of had this shared dream since they were 11 and it’s coming to fruition for them after they’ve been putting in all this hard work,” said Crater head coach Leaf Jensen on Monday.

The Comets have finished fourth in the MWL in each of the last three seasons, combining to go 34-29 overall while missing the state playoffs each season due to play-in game losses. The last Crater team to reach the state tournament was a gritty 2014 bunch that won the MWL title and marked the first season in Jensen’s second term as head coach.

“That first group I had in 2014 was a special group because the team had been bad for so many years prior,” said Jensen, “but this group is something else.”

This is a group on a mission, and their coach is thoroughly enjoying being part of the ride.

“It’s just fun, it’s a special group,” said Jensen. “I feel like I have 15 daughters out there.”

Thus far, the Comets have dropped only six sets — two coming in the first week of the season — and their lone setback was in an 8 a.m. match at the Rogue Valley Classic where they were without starting senior middle blocker Addison Lowder and lost 15-13 in the deciding third set to Crook County.

As has been discussed with brother-in-law Josh Rohlfing, who runs his own powerhouse volleyball program at Southern Oregon University, both coaches will typically run down pregame checklists looking at the matchup of their right-side hitters against the other team’s right-side hitter and so on down the line.

“Nine times out of 10 I say it’s us (with the advantage) in every position that we have on the court, and that is rare,” said Jensen. “There’s usually a time you go out and feel like I’m overmatched in this spot or overmatched in that spot, and I just literally don’t feel that we have had a match yet where that’s been the case.”

“We haven’t played a match yet where I just felt we were out-gunned or outhustled or whatever,” he added. “It’s a special crew, they want it bad. In the past my other teams wanted to win and it’d be great if they won, but not quite like this.”

Crater’s strength lies in its overall balance and quality depth, with the Comets carrying 15 on the varsity instead of the typical 12 simply because there is very little drop-off.

“We have a lot of players that contribute and the real strength of our team — and I’ve told the kids this all season — is that I feel we have two of the best teams in our conference in one gym,” said Jensen. “Our daily scrimmage is more competitive than some of our matches have been.”

That certainly was noticeable Monday during Crater’s final drill, where Jensen stood on the edge of the court and put a ball in play to either side and then watched as the point played out, then would immediately fire another ball into play with no rhyme or reason which direction he would go to keep all players on their toes.

The action was spirited and lively, and no one looked like they didn’t belong in the fray.

“If we couldn’t do this in our scrimmages then our matches wouldn’t be as good,” said Jensen after the fact. “Not all kids buy into that, but it’s true. You’re only as good as player 12 — or in our case player 15 — because in every scrimmage somebody is in there. If they didn’t believe it, we would struggle and we wouldn’t have that day-to-day competition that is so important.”

“It’s not easy to do but they’ve bought into it, which says way more about them as people than it does about what we’re doing as coaches,” he added. “It’s hard to be a role player, especially on a team that’s this good. You want to be out there and shine and you know that I can go out there and do that too. They could all step in and they know it.”

That said, there are a handful of guiding forces that have been pivotal to Crater’s success thus far, starting with the less glamorous aspect of the game.

“Our team is led by our defense,” said the coach. “To me we have the three best (defensive specialists) in the conference. We are so solid on serve-receive and so solid on defense with Rane Jensen, Aubrey Kievit and Heather Colmer. Any one of them would be the starting libero on any team I feel, really not just in our conference but statewide.”

All three are seniors, with Rane Jensen leading the squad at 113 digs in MWL play while Kievit has 81 and Colmer 73. Their reception percentages are all above 92 percent despite an enormous amount of opportunities, with Jensen coming on at libero for middle blockers Lowder and Maya Van Hook, Kievit stepping in for outside hitter Ashtyn Slater and Colmer replacing right-side hitters Haylee Hoffman and Averi Young.

Kievit, you may recall, helped lead Cascade Christian to repeat Class 3A state titles before joining the Comets for her final prep season. Kievit has committed to play at Oregon Tech next year, with Jensen set to play collegiately at Concordia.

And while the defense may be special, the offensive punch the Comets put forth isn’t far off.

Nehkyah Ellis, a 5-foot-10 outside hitter, is the team’s leading force with 163 kills, 81 digs and 31 service aces. Ellis has signed to play at the University of Mary, a Division II school in North Dakota.

Combining Ellis with the 6-1 Lowder and 5-7 Van Hook, who is a dizzying display of hustle and efficiency on the court, makes this Crater bunch tough to combat. Lowder boasts 80 kills in league play and Van Hook has 70, with each above 50 percent in kill percentage to go with a combined 34 blocks.

“We have three exceptionally powerful offensive weapons on top of three exceptionally good passing and digging defenders,” said coach Jensen, “so we put a lot of balls back up and we have the offense to take care of it and put the ball away.”

Senior setter Jadyn Carothers has controlled action well with 242 assists, with sophomore setter Kylie Anderson doling out 97 assists in MWL play.

The best part of it all for Jensen is that each player holds the other accountable by displaying a hard-charging work ethic in practice to go with an unquenchable thirst to succeed.

“They just work hard, and they’re super-competitive kids,” said the coach. “Sometimes they’re not always the most pleasant humans on the planet because they’re pretty intense. I love them but they’re intense. That fire, I haven’t had that before and I love it.”

Now it’s just a matter of staying focused, staying healthy and staying together as Crater vies for another conference crown and, potentially, a first state championship in program history.

“We know what this year could be and when you know that, I think everybody’s willing to put a little bit of their ego on the back burner,” said coach Jensen. “Just a little, just enough. We want most of it out there still.”

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

Crater volleyball players scrimmage during Monday's practice under the watchful eye of head coach Leaf Jensen, far right. KRIS HENRY / MAIL TRIBUNE