Last year, the HRV volleyball celebrated the end of its breakout season by winning the team’s first conference title in 27 years.
And last weekend, building on what they started last season, the Eagles ended another longstanding drought.
For the first time in nearly a quarter century, the HRV volleyball team will be heading to the OSAA state tournament, having defeated Ashland three sets to none in a first-round playoff game in Hood River at Vannet Court. This is only the third time in school history that the Eagles have qualified for the tournament — the first being the 1988 season, the second in 1993. The school has never finished higher than fourth. The Eagles enter the tournament with the lowest seed (eighth) and will play the top-ranked team in the state, the Marist Catholic Spartans, in the opening round of the tournament Friday at 8 a.m. on Court 1 at Liberty High School in Hillsboro.
For Scott Walker, who has coached the team for the past 11 seasons and is no stranger to the program’s history of struggles, Saturday’s victory over the Grizzlies was nothing short of cathartic.
“I was tearing up, I’m tearing up right now,” he said immediately following the game. “I can’t say enough good things about these girls, the way they’ve come together — really in the last week, they’ve really pulled it together.”
Rebecca Johnston, a senior and the team’s libero, was equally ecstatic about the result.
“Honestly, it feels incredible, it’s my senior year, it’s my last year playing with this amazing team, it’s my last home game on this court,” she said. “It feels like everything has just come together. We reached our goal of getting to Liberty.”
Ashland made HRV work for every set and made it difficult for the Eagles to build or hold a lead, trading points throughout the opening minutes. But the Eagles never fell behind more than a few points and were able to extend rallies when it counted — none more than the first set, when, facing an 18-16 deficit, HRV went on an 8-0 run on the way to winning the set 25-22. HRV came back stronger in the second to win it 25-18, then held off a late Grizzlies run to take the third and final set by a score of 25-22.
The HRV players exhibited composure and confidence throughout the game that was largely absent in last year’s playoff appearance, when, like this season, HRV entered as an eight-seed and hosted a nine seed, the Bend Lava Bears. The Eagles fell in three sets, none of which were close.
Though this year’s team is largely made up of the same individuals who were part of 2015’s Cinderella season, it is a more experienced, cohesive group. Johnston noted that a handful of her teammates played club volleyball in Portland in the offseason, which helped build skills.
Walker said his players’ progression was due to the hard work they exhibited in practice, creating a team where all 12 girls contribute. It was indicative in his effusive praise for everyone on the team following the game, whether it was Hannah McNerney’s serving prowess (eight aces), Katie Kennedy and Bianca Badillo’s abilities at tracking the ball as blockers, Shae Duffy’s and Kennedy James’ offense (13 and five kills, respectively), or Emily Curtis’ setting and defense (23 assists and 15 digs).
Walker was so confident that Saturday’s result would be favorable to HRV that he instructed his players to pack their bags for Liberty long before the game with Ashland was scheduled.
“We made reservations in Hillsboro like four weeks ago,” he noted. “The last three practices, we’ve had three really phenomenal practices and every time I was like, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do… next Friday we’re going to play the number one team in the state at 8 in the morning. That’s what’s going to happen.’ And we just treated it like it was done.”
The Eagles have a tall order ahead of them if they want to upset Marist Catholic — a team that swept the Midwestern League (14-0) and lost only three out of 22 games this season. Marist was ranked first in 5A for the majority of the regular season — ousted at least once from the top spot by none other than the Eagles, who were briefly ranked first in mid-September. Winner of the game advances to the semifinals Friday evening, while the loser is relegated to the consolation round the following morning. Regardless of the outcome, HRV will face either La Salle or Bend after the Marist Catholic game.
Though HRV hasn’t faced Marist Catholic yet this season, the Spartans’ reputation proceeds them.
“Marist is a tough matchup, because they do so many things at a high level,” Walker said Monday morning, but added, “I think if we serve and pass at a high level, we can compete with anyone.”