The Lake Oswego volleyball team proved last Thursday that it's never too late to put your best foot forward.
After struggling through the first half of the season, the Lakers have been on a roll lately. Their play last week was nothing short of sensational. That included somewhat of a surprising win over Lakeridge last Tuesday and then a crucial four-set victory over Oregon City on Thursday.
Thursday's hard-fought victory, plus Oregon City's loss to Clackamas on Tuesday of this week, handed the Lakers the No. 4 playoff seed from the Three Rivers League. It was only fitting that berth went to the Lakers after the way they played in last week's 25-20, 13-25, 26-24, 25-20 victory over Oregon City.
Now, the Lakers might be playing better than anyone else in the TRL and the timing couldn't be any better. Maybe the key was Lake Oswego coach K.T. Emerson shying away from talk of the post-season as the Lakers headed into the home stretch of the regular season.
'We didn't talk much about the playoffs, or anything like that,' Emerson said. 'It was a focus on the seniors, doing it for (them) and doing it for each other.'
The result was a cohesive, teamwork style of play that seemed to win most of the key points.
'They made sure they capitalized on opportunities that were given to them,' Emerson noted.
Coming into the match, Oregon City might have been the hottest team in the league. In fact, the Pioneers' campaign has been almost a mirror image of the Lakers' season as both teams struggled mightily out of the gate. Then, Oregon City nearly shocked the state when the Pioneers came within an eyelash of beating West Linn, a team that has now won 107 consecutive league matches.
The Pioneers maintained their hot hand through the early part of last Thursday's game 1. But Lakers recovered from an early 6-3 deficit and eventually claimed a 15-13 lead after two kills by Avery Lee, one of the key seniors on the team, and another one by sophomore Anna Gornbein.
Oregon City rallied back with four straight points to take a 18-17 lead, but Lake Oswego answered with an 8-2 run that closed out the first game. Six of the points during that run came on Oregon City errors, plus sophomore Keri Nielsen and junior Mackenzie Walen added a kill apiece as the Lakers claimed the all-important first game.
The only blemish of the night came in the second game when the Lakers never got untracked and the Pioneers rolled to an easy 12-point decision.
'The second game has been our struggle all year long,' Emerson said. '… But that was OK, because they were determined to come right back in the third.'
The third set might have been the game of the night. It featured three lead changes and six ties.
After winning set 2 with ease, Oregon City clearly had the momentum heading into the third. But the Lakers refused to give Oregon City any slack in that game.
Lee, who recently made a verbal commitment to play basketball for Point Loma College in California next year, got Lake Oswego going again with three straight points to tie the game at 7. A short time later, Walen, Nielsen and Courtney Fitzgerald (another one of the seniors) scored three more consecutive points to put Lake Oswego in front 10-8.
The Lakers had their biggest lead of the game when Lindsay Cowan's miss-hit from the back row fell in for a point to put Lake Oswego ahead 21-17. But Oregon City came back moments later to tie the match at 21.
Then, kills by Nielsen and Lee, plus an Oregon City error, made 24-21 Lake Oswego. And, once again, Oregon City came back to tie the match with a three-point run of its own. But that's where the Oregon City magic ended. The Lakers then put the match away with a blocked shot by Gornbein and a kill by Lee.
It was Lee's best game of the night, which helped make it possibly her best match of the year.
'She's been playing great lately,' Emerson said of Lee. 'And she's been playing great in practice lately … All the way around the court, she's just been bringing it.'
After falling behind two games to one, the Pioneers faced a must-win situation in the next game and they responded with a superb effort. But the Lakers weren't about to roll over. In fact, the Lakers jumped to early leads of 3-0, 5-2 and 8-5 as Gornbein, Nielsen and Lee turned in some strong front-court play. Still, the Pioneers fought back to take a 12-11 lead, thanks largely to the play of outside hitter Kelsey Moore.
Then, Lake Oswego answered with six consecutive points to take a 17-12 lead. That run included two kills each by Nielsen and Cowan. Oregon City was never able to recover after that, and Fitzgerald put an exclamation point on the victory when she nailed a service ace for the match-winning point.
It was ironic that Fitzgerald would end the match with an offensive play. As usual, she played her best on defense as she dug several hard-hit shots by the Pioneers.
'She's reading the ball and reading hitters really well right now,' Emerson said.
Lake Oswego's front line also did an excellent job of blocking against Moore, who might be the best outside hitter in the TRL.
'She was definitely a focus of ours, to make sure we had a double block on her all of the time,' Emerson said of Moore.
Countering Moore's powerful swing was just one of several obstacles that the Lakers were able to overcome in recent weeks.
'They like having challenges in front of them. They don't like an easy road,' Emerson said of her team. 'But they seem to capitalize on those opportunities, which is good.'