Don’t look now, but the Bucks are moving on up.

The St. Paul volleyball team has long been the scourge of the Casco League, but with the Buckaroos bumping up to the 2A classification this year, the team is swimming in relatively unknown waters.

“I think that the competition will definitely rise and all across the league we will be a little stronger,” head coach Lesli Hiller said. “We are very excited to compete at a higher level.”

For nearly a decade, the Buckaroos have been one of the top volleyball programs in the state at the 1A level. The Bucks have won the Casco League title four times in the past six seasons and have finished no worse than second in conference play each year since 2006.

This year’s team is coming off its own conference title and a fourth-place finish in the 2013 state tournament, but with five of six starters graduating in the spring, it will be up to a new crop of players to make their mark at their new home in the Tri-River Conference.

“We graduated a lot of seniors, but these young players have just been improving day by day and all are very excited to play new teams,” Hiller said. “Every game we won’t know what we’re headed into and it’s kind of an exciting time.”

The Bucks bring return junior libero Cameron Stone as the team’s lone starter from last year. Stone earned first team all-conference honors for St. Paul as a sophomore, the second consecutive year on the all-conference team for her.

“I think (Stone) is a natural leader just by her example she sets on the court,” Hiller said. “She’s very dedicated. She reads the ball and I think all the other players definitely push themselves to work as hard as she does.”

Although the other five starters graduated from last year’s team, the Bucks have been able to stay successful over the past decade by preparing girls early on and plugging them into the lineup as juniors and seniors to replace the graduating class.

“It’s really become a strong program in St. Paul,” Hiller said. “A lot of the players at the junior high level are playing club volleyball, so when they come to the high school they’re just already playing at a higher level.”

Hiller said she is particularly impressed with the team’s three senior outside hitters — Hannah Merten, Alex Coleman and Remy Brentano — who are ready to accept larger roles with the team this year.

“Another strong leader you’re going to see is Emma Coleman,” Hiller said. “She was our third highest in kills last year and the other two graduated. She’s taking on a role as our strongest hitter.”

Brentano, who switches time between outside hitter and setter, came off the bench last season and has shown remarkable improvement between her junior and senior years in her ability to hit the ball, Hiller said.

“(Brentano) last year didn’t hit as much, but this year she’s really come along with her hits,” she added. “She’s going to be an all-around player, not only setting in the back row but hitting in the front row.”

While the seniors have this year to prove they’re capable of playing up to the level of those that came before them, Hiller said she is always impressed with how much time and effort her older players spend as leaders, mentoring the generation of athletes just below them.

“They realize the better those younger kids do, the stronger your program is,” Hiller said. “We’ve just got a lot of strong hitters coming up and ready to take on a leadership role.”

The Bucks will have to contend with Tri-Valley runner-up Kennedy, which finished fourth in the 2A state tournament in 2013, and return a pair of first team all-league players. But the conference’s three-time defending champion, Culver, has joined the newly formed Columbia Basin Conference and leaves a sizable vacuum at the top of the conference that the Bucks will be eager to try and fill.

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