MILWAUKIE - La Salle Prep volleyball coach Liz Banta is high on her 2011 varsity squad.
'The sky is the limit for us,' she says. 'It's just a matter of getting confidence in each other and fixing some small things. We have plenty of experience and this is one of the most talented freshmen classes we've had in years.'
The Falcons have struggled some in early season matches, defeating Seaside (25-12, 25-19, 25-16), but dropping matches to Valley Catholic (14-25, 17-25, 25-18, 17-25), Philomath (24-26, 30-32) and Stayton (24-26, 21-25, 11-25).
Still, Banta says she is not that concerned.
'We've started the season way ahead of seasons past,' she said. 'But we've lost matches because of decision making and tons and tons of unforced errors. As we gain experience playing together, those errors should disappear.'
'We want to be first in conference and we want to place at state,' said senior co-captain Ali Brown. 'Those are our goals.'
Team co-captain Elise Grange explained the lackluster start to the preseason: 'We have a young team - three freshmen and three sophomores on varsity. It's been a learning experience for the young girls playing at this level.'
'They've got plenty of talent,' said co-captain Madison Weaver. 'We're working hard at practices and they're learning. I think we'll be ready for league.'
'Estacada will be our toughest competition in league,' said Brown. 'We split with them last year. We beat them on senior night, when they had an undefeated season.'
'They'll be tough, but I'm confident we can beat them,' said Grange. 'We beat them in club and it wasn't even close.'
Seniors Brown (middle hitter), Grange (right side hitter), Paulina Cieszkowska (outside hitter) and Ximena Giesemann (outside hitter) are the top returning players from last year's team, along with sophomore Danielle Spirlin (middle hitter).
Brown and Cieszkowska both gained conference all-star recognition in 2010.
Banta says she's got a record 22 freshmen in her program, including varsity players Lauren Danna, Meghan Studdard and Amanda Summers.
Summers, Weaver and juniors Emily Culley and Caitlon Vu are all battling for starting action at the Falcons' two setter positions, according to Banta. Culley is a transfer from Gresham.
La Salle's varsity team includes a lot of local talent. Cieszkowska, Vu and Danna are from Happy Valley; Studdard is from Oregon City; Grange is from Gladstone; Weaver, junior Lizzy Ressler (defensive specialist) and sophomore Gaby Timmen (defensive specialist) is from Milwaukie.
The Falcons have a lot of youth on their 14-player varsity roster, which includes nine underclassmen.
Asked which team will be favored to win the TVC, Banta said, 'I'm sure it will be between us, Estacada and Madras.'
Last year's league win over Estacada gained the Falcons second place in league, as they finished a game up on Madras and a game back of Estacada in the TVC standings.
The Falcons have had plenty of success in recent years. They placed fifth at state in 2009 and they were sixth at state last year. Three years ago they lost to eventual state champion Sisters in the final round of the state playoffs.
The Falcons last fielded a state championship team in 1997.
Asked if this team has the potential to finish on top in Class 4A, Brown said, 'We've got the talent, [to win state] for sure. After the first practice I knew we could be pretty good.'
'That's what made losing our first games this season so disappointing,' said Grange. 'We have the potential and the talent. We just haven't executed - yet.'
The Falcons will get an idea of how they stack up in the TVC this Thursday, when they begin conference play as hosts to Madras. They vie in a tournament at Sisters on Saturday.
Banta said she was hopeful that Cieszkowska, who has been out with a severely sprained ankle, would be able to return to action for the Madras match.