Another title run for Banks

Banks comes up short in the state semifinals against six-time defending state champion Crook County
by: Zack Palmer Banks’ Kaylin Vandomelen (8) and Abby Hardie (4) team up to block a shot by Astoria’s Danielle Moyer during the quarterfinals of the Class 4A state volleyball tournament at Lane Community College on Friday.

EUGENE - Banks volleyball coach Suzanne Alley is getting a little sick of always playing for second place, but that is the reality in a sport that has now been dominated by one high school program for more than half a decade.

For the second year in a row, Banks' state championship dreams evaporated against Crook County, which beat the Lady Braves 25-14, 25-15, 22-25, 25-13 in the semifinals of the Class 4A state volleyball tournament at Lane Community College on Friday, then went on to win its sixth consecutive state championship with a three-game sweep of Hidden Valley on Saturday.

'Going into the tournament and having Crook County in our bracket, we were thinking that third was probably the best we were going to do,' said Alley, whose team captured third place on Saturday with a gritty 25-22, 22-25, 25-18, 21-25, 15-5 victory over Sisters.

'We wanted to give Crook County a run for their money, they just have this mystique. I think they're going to stay in everyone's way for a while. They're still really young, and they're just going to keep reloading.'

With six straight state titles - four as a Class 5A school and now two more at the 4A level - and only three seniors on this year's roster, Crook County (27-3) certainly looks like a volleyball dynasty in the making. The Cowgirls' three losses this season were all to 6A teams, and they dropped only one set all year to a 4A opponent.

That one set happened to come against Banks (23-7) in the semifinals on Friday, giving Alley and her squad some comfort in the knowledge that they played the state champs as close as anyone this season.

'We're the only 4A team that took a set from them this year, so that sort of shows how dominant they were,' Alley said. 'We were pretty happy with third. It was a great way for the seniors to end their careers and for the juniors to end their season.'

Banks opened the state tournament on Friday morning against Cowapa League rival Astoria (23-4), which edged the Lady Braves for a third consecutive regular-season league championship. Banks got its revenge in the quarterfinals, however, battering Astoria 25-21, 25-21, 25-21 to send the Fishermen into the consolation bracket. Abby Hardie had nine kills and seven blocks for Banks, and Chelsie Bunn had a perfect hitting performance with three kills and no errors.

Banks took the first game with relative ease, but fell behind 21-19 in the second game. Following a time out, Marla Gooding smashed three aces in a row to cap a 5-0 run and put the Braves back on top 24-21, and an Astoria hitting error ended the game.

The Lady Braves clinched the match in game three, tying things up late on a kill by Jennifer Hilger, then taking the lead for good on yet another ace by Gooding, whose hard, sinking jump-serve gave Astoria fits all match.

'The first year (we went to the state tournament) they beat us in the consolation bracket to knock us out, then last year we beat them in the semifinals,' Alley said of Astoria. 'I think it says a lot about the Cowapa League that we were both there again this year and placed really high.'

The win set the stage for a showdown against Crook County in the semifinals on Friday night, but the Cowgirls were simply too much to handle. Hardie had 12 kills and four blocks, and Hilger added nine kills and three blocks.

'There were a few times against Crook County where I felt like we weren't quite pulling the trigger fast enough, but we came back on Saturday and played great defense,' Alley said.

The Lady Braves needed to play stellar defense as they found themselves pushed to the brink in a five-set slugfest against Sisters (21-6) in the tournament's third-place match on Saturday. Banks took a 2-1 lead against the Outlaws, but faltered in a shaky game four performance before bouncing back with a resounding victory in the fifth and decisive set.

After trailing by as many as four points early in game one, Banks rallied to take a 20-17 lead on Kaylin Vandomelen's left-side kill. Sisters pulled within one point before Banks closed things out with an ace from Lexi Chung and a kill from Melissa Masters.

Sisters led from start to finish in the second game, but Banks responded with a breezy victory in game three, building a 20-12 lead that was never challenged.

Needing a win to close out the match, Banks stumbled in game four. After taking an early lead, the Lady Braves allowed Sisters to come back and pull ahead 13-11. Banks kept things close, eventually getting within 22-21 on a pair of aces from Natalie Larsen, but two hitting errors set up game point for the Outlaws, and they blocked a shot at the net to win 25-21 and force a decisive fifth game.

'In game five the girls said, 'We're going to do this. We're not going to finish our careers on a loss,'' Alley said. 'Natalie played her best game of the season. She was flying around all over the place, and I think that sparked everyone else.'

Masters gave Banks an early lead with a cross-court kill, and Larsen served the advantage out to 9-2. That was more than enough cushion for the Braves, who cruised to a 15-5 victory that clinched third place in the state.

Masters had 16 kills and four aces against Sisters, and Larsen finished with 26 digs. Hardie had 12 kills and 14 blocks on her way to being named a First Team all-tournament selection. Larsen was named to the Second Team.

Banks graduates six seniors from this year's squad, while five juniors will return next season, looking to make their fourth straight trip to the state tournament.

'I think these girls have established some tradition for this program, and that's important when you have young kids coming up,' Alley said. 'Three straight trips to the state tournament - that's a pretty cool legacy for this team to leave behind.'