The Bucks breeze by Hosanna Christian 25-15, 25-14, 25-16, will face favorite Imbler in the state quarterfinals

by: SETH GORDON - St. Pauls Kennedy Smith dips low to bump the ball, setting up her team in the Buckaroos victory over the Hosanna Christian Lions in the first round of the 1A OSAA state tournament.Considering Hosanna Christian has been a fixture at recent OSAA 1A state championships, finishing fourth, fifth, tied for seventh and third the last four seasons, St. Paul was expecting a stiff challenge from the Lions in their second round playoff game.

Although the Bucks lost a five-set thriller to Hosanna Christian en route to finishing fourth in 2011, much of the current roster was not on varsity or did not play prominent roles on that squad, the Lions were an unfamiliar opponent but the assumption was a reasonable one.

Unfortunately for the visitors, St. Paul was on top of its game, after spending the majority of the previous two weeks just practicing for a playoff push, and routed Hosanna Christian 25-15, 25-13, 25-16 Saturday at St. Paul High School.

“It was kind of a long week because we’re used to having a lot of games during the week and maybe a couple of practices,” senior middle blocker Sara Pierson said. “We were trying new things, working really hard with the setters and passing. It really showed on the court.”

Unlike their come-from-behind 3-2 victory over Country Christian in the district title game, which ensured the Bucks’ seniors would get to play at home one last time, coach Lesli Hiller’s squad need just 14 points to warm up, not a full set.

St. Paul trailed 10-4, but sparked by an 9-0 run in which junior setter Remy Brentano collected four of her game-high six aces, the hosts won 21 of the next 26 points to capture the set and set the tone for the match.

Faced with the opposite challenge of maintaining that form, even after jumping out 10-1 and sailing to victory in the second, the Bucks did not let up, establishing a 20-9 lead before closing out the match in the third.

St. Paul’s hitters, especially Pierson, who finished with 11 kills, fellow middle blocker and classmate Delaney Sump (16 kills), were one major reason the Lions were never able to recover and get back into the match.

We’d call a specific spot on the court for them to hit to and they would just hit it right there,” Hiller said. “Sara, especially, you could tell at the end of that game that she wanted it. She said, ‘Let’s just end this,’ so she was going to make sure they got the kill.”

The Bucks, however, were at the top of their game in just about every aspect, from passing (12 digs from Cameron Stone) to setting (21 assists for Kennedy Smith and seven for Brentano), but most impressively, corrected their serving, one of their most frequent trouble spots, too.

The team collected 13 aces to just six errors, at least half of which came late in the third set, in 74 attempts, which helped to extend its runs from significant to overwhelming.

“We’re playing really unified right now,” senior Jessica Wilmes said. “It felt really good.”

With C.S. Lewis falling to No. 3 seed Imbler, the Bucks will get the next crack at toppling the Panthers (24-0), who have to be the tournament favorite considering they have dropped just six sets all season. Imbler’s ranking was hurt by the relative weakness of its conference – the Old Oregon League – but has not only beaten No. 2 Dufur and No. 4 Condon/Wheeler, but toppled the top-ranked team in 2A, Weston-McEwen, 3-1. If that wasn’t enough, the Panthers finished runner-up in 1A a year ago, falling 15-12 in the fifth set against conference rival and top-ranked Powder Valley.

“It definitely showed that our girls are playing confident right now,” Hiller said. “They’re ready for whatever comes their way.”

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