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South’s Clevenger leading the charge

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Senior outside hitter powering Panthers’ bid for SWC championship

Maybe it’s fitting for somebody who wants to go into medicine, but for South Medford senior outside hitter Katie Clevenger there’s more to it than just simply hitting the ball when she sees it set in her direction.

“I like to see where the set is — if it’s off, if it’s tight or wherever,” said Clevenger, a 6-foot outside hitter. “A lot of the time, I will base where I swing off of that.”

The process is detailed even if it all materializes while the ball reaches its apex and starts to make its way down. South head coach Robin Akpan describes it as a process where Clevenger “is calculating” and evaluating the options she has on the floor.

The end result, well, that’s where the fun comes in.

“It’s super awesome to do what I’ve been practicing,” Clevenger said of when she sees another kill be recorded. “Those are the shots that I’ve been practicing with at school or with my dad, and after being able to execute those and feeling good about them, it’s pretty awesome and gives me a lot of confidence for the next ones and to keep pushing and do even trickier things with my arm.”

For Clevenger, a four-year varsity player for the Panthers, there have been plenty of those moments over her impressive high school career.

In developing into one of the best volleyball players in Oregon, the Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo commit has been at the forefront of South Medford’s impressive start to the 2022 season. The personal success has led to team success, which understandably go hand-in-hand once you’ve seen Clevenger hammer the ball more than a few times into the empty spaces of an opponent’s defense.

It’s all the same to Clevenger, really.

As great as the high kill totals and personal success may be, the main goal of bringing a Southwest Conference title to the south side of Medford is what is pushing her most during her final season in blue.

South Medford entered a busy week that will be capped with competition at the Rogue Valley Classic this Saturday with a 9-2 record and in first place in the SWC at 4-0.

The Panthers saw their seven-match winning streak snapped over the weekend when they lost to McNary at the Sprague tournament. The Celtics (10-0) are one of three teams still unbeaten in Class 6A, and expected to be competing this weekend in the tourney at North Medford High.

“The biggest goal is to win a banner,” said Clevenger, who recently turned 18. “South Medford has never won a conference title in volleyball in its existence, so that’s the biggest thing my team and I are going to do this year. We want to beat Sheldon, take them out of their top dog spot and then make a run at the playoffs — which I think we can do if we’re committed to our goals this season.”

And she’s the biggest reason why the Panthers have sights on trying to dethrone a Sheldon program that has won the last four SWC titles.

A first-team all-SWC selection last season, Clevenger averaged 20.5 kills, 15.8 digs, 3.1 assists, 3.2 blocks and 1.4 aces during the Panthers’ 10 league matches in 2021.

It’s more of the same story this season.

Entering Wednesday night’s match against Sheldon, Clevenger is averaging 13.1 kills, 1.1 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.6 aces. She recorded a season-high 22 kills in South Medford’s win over South Eugene last Friday.

“When Katie’s dialed in, she performs,” said Akpan, who has been South’s head coach since Clevenger’s sophomore season. “It’s a visual experience when you watch Katie, and a lot of people come out and say, ‘I don’t care what team she’s on, I just love watching her play.’ There is a big shift there because when the lights are on, Katie’s going to make sure she shows up and that she shows up for her team.”

“I’ve also seen her go from being ‘I have to take care of everything’ to being able to, especially this year, see that we have other players that are part of the puzzle that can help her reach her goals and help the team reach her goals,” added Akpan.

A key for Clevenger, she said, has been the simple fact that she doesn’t have a college choice weighing on her mind. Instead, she can just go out and play, with outside noise not overriding her usually busy yet very structured schedule — she teaches piano to kids during her free period at South — even before she steps onto the volleyball court.

Clevenger verbally committed to Cal Poly’s beach volleyball program last fall, while committing to the Mustangs’ indoor team before South’s season began.

That was a huge thing,” said Clevenger. “I remember being super stressed out about it junior year because a lot of my friends up in Eugene and Portland and down in California were already committed. It was a huge thing for me because I wanted to play in college, so not having to worry about that now or having to put out film to try and impress people, I can play how I want to play and putting my best foot out there is super nice. It’s awesome not having to stress about it.”

Clevenger also credits the impact of being a multi-sport athlete in making her skillset on the volleyball court for the better.

As she was juggling a busy club volleyball schedule in the spring, Clevenger also qualified for the Class 6A state track and field championships in the high jump after finishing second at the SWC championship meet.

“Those workouts with speed and jumping for height correlate pretty well,” said Clevenger, who also ran the 200- and 400-meter dash. “I think that volleyball has made me faster and track has made me more agile and be able to jump higher on the court. It’s awesome to intermix the two.”

As big as her impact has been on the court, Akpan knows that Clevenger’s ability to lead as something that has helped the Panthers start their season so well.

“She’s a leader,” said Akpan of Clevenger, one of South’s two captains. “She leads by example, but she also reaches out and tries to bring people along with her. She’s a huge asset for us and I love having Katie in the gym.”

And being a leader is something that Clevenger embraces, too.

“Having fun with my teammates is the biggest thing,” she said, “but also showing the JV and the freshman teams what they’re working towards and what a high level varsity is and how much work and time comes in with that.”

That’s no surprise to Akpan, who has come to know that the same fierce competitor on the court isn’t the same person she sees in everyday life.

“She’s a kind, serving person and she looks out for others,” said Akpan. “She’s very driven in what her goals are, and what I appreciate about her is that she lets you know what she wants to be doing, what her goals are in life and with her team and she’s going to tell you what they are so she can go earn them.”

The drive is there no matter what Clevenger does in life, but it’s especially true when it comes to volleyball.

It’s helped her develop into the player she is today, and one that will be with her throughout her collegiate career and beyond.

And for somebody like Clevenger who is happy to say “I love playing volleyball” whenever she can, getting to have the kind of senior year she’s having at South is just icing on the cake.

“It’s pretty awesome,” said Clevenger. “I’ve played with them for a couple of years and I’ve known most of them for my high school career. It’s super awesome to play with your friends who I know are super good people and are super dedicated to volleyball. It’s going to be super hard to leave them after this season.”

Reach reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

South Medford senior Katie Clevenger has been leading the Panthers’ strong start to the 2022 season. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune
South Medford's Katie Clevenger pushes the ball over the net for a point against North Medford.Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
South Medford's Katie Clevenger celebrates with teamates after hitting a kill against North Medford.Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
South Medford's Katie Clevenger makes a kill for a point against North Medford.Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune