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Would-be volleyballers must face a gauntlet of drills for a chance to make the storied team

by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Players await instruction during tryouts on Wednesday afternoon. Head Coach Tom Ray believes that St. Helens has enough talent to win a Northwestern Oregon Conference championship this fall.
From the moment you step into the gym, there’s a feeling in the air. It’s more than bouncing balls, squeaking shoes and the war-cries of the athletes, there’s a longstanding tradition.

St. Helens High School's volleyball program finished tryouts this week, and for many of the girls who came out to participate, the sight of head coach Tom Ray roaming the sidelines is as familiar as the game itself.

“I coach middle school track, and I teach at the elementary school,” said Ray. “I've seen most of these girls for years.”

That familiarity showed during tryouts, as the group of young volleyball hopefuls remained focused and intent on the task at hand. It was clear: each and every one of them wanted to be here.

Kali Moore is a returning senior on this year's squad, and she said there was no place she’d rather be.

“That’s all I want to do, is be here,” said Moore, who tried her best to rush through senior pictures on Wednesday in order to get back to practice as soon as possible.

by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Senior Kali Moore cheers after winning a point during a drill. Moore was chosen as one of two team captains.A leader both with her voice and her play, Ray said the way Moore is today is the way she came into the program: competitive, athletic and loud. Though she has always been a vocal leader, Moore says she wasn't always so confident, especially during tryouts as a freshman. The first day was a little nerve racking, but exciting at the same time.

“Having the older girls there with you to push you… made you feel better about yourself and gave you more confidence,” said Moore.

Like many of her teammates, Moore has been hooked on volleyball since she was young. When she was a freshman, she took the game to a new level.

“Middle school was kinda for fun,” Moore said. “Then, [in high school] I fell in love with the game.”

After several seasons playing recreational and club volleyball, Moore stepped into a much more competitive high school environment. That’s when things changed. The ball started coming a lot faster, players were bigger and the level of commitment went through the roof, forcing Moore to change.

“When I was a freshman, I used to be really shy and quiet,” said Moore. Her coach came along side and told her to be herself and to let people see who she was. Moore took that to heart.

“I don’t have a box anymore,” said Moore. “I’m not shy. I feel a little bit nervous like everyone does, but I’m a completely different person.”

Now in her senior season, part of Moore’s role is to inspire the players around her. She remembers what the upperclassmen did for her, and she does what she can to lend a hand and motivate her teammates to give their all and remain positive.

That kind of senior leadership has had an impact on players like freshman Abby Russell, who is in her third year as a volleyball player after two years at the club level. Russell said the amount of work needed to survive at the high school level was tough, but worth it.

“It’s scary, I’m nervous, but excited,” said Russell. “I can’t wait to play.”

For Russell, all she can do is do her best and work hard during tryouts. The rest is up to the coaches, who use a number of different factors to determine who makes which team.

by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Tom Ray instructs a player during tryouts. Ray, who is in his 13th season as the head of the volleyball program, made final cuts on Thursday.
Firstly, players are evaluated on their physical fitness. They go through a series of exercises including sit ups, the triple jump, a series of sprints, and coordination drills such as the box drill. This entertaining challenge requires players to alternate touching the corners of a box with a spot marked in the center, stretching to reach each corner in a circle until the box has been completed. Players are timed, and as with all the fitness drills, given points based on their performance.

Tryouts then move to the volleyball courts themselves, where each hopeful participates in drills designed to evaluate their technical skills. Each player makes a series of passes, both underhand and over head. Their communication is graded as well as their passing accuracy. Players also participate in hitting and serving drills, being graded one at a time in order to receive points for each category.

Once tryouts are finished, each player’s points are totaled for an individual score, but Ray said points alone don’t determine if a player makes the team or not. The coaches meet and discuss what they’ve seen during the week, and it’s in those discussions that the teams are set. Attitude, work ethic, skill level and fitness are all taken into account.

Ray, who has coached volleyball in St. Helens since 2000, said the varsity team is already set, and has seen some playing time together. He believes the experience on the top squad is enough to beat out league rival Sherwood, and that kind of pressure means the adrenaline rush on the first day of tryouts never really goes away, even for veterans like Moore.

“I still get jitters,” said Moore with a laugh, “but it’s an excited nervous.”

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