Especially with Sherwood out of the mix, the Lions figure to be a frontrunner in the NWOC race

Photo Credit: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Behind the two power hitters are not only a cast of capable varsity starters, but a long list of talent 'waiting in the wings.'Headed into last fall’s volleyball season, the goals for St. Helens were fairly simple: beat Sherwood, and fight for a league title.

And the Lions did just that, winning 12 consecutive matches, going 13-1 in the Northwest Oregon Conference and sweeping Sherwood High School on their way to the first league title in 25 years.

Now, with much of the team back and ready to rumble, the goals really haven’t changed, except for one small detail.

“We’ll need to take that banner down,” said Head Coach Tom Ray, motioning toward the Sherwood Bowmen flag hanging at one end of the St. Helens gym, alongside the current NWOC members.

The Bowmen, who have been a volleyball nemesis for St. Helens over the years, have stepped up into Class 6A’s Three Rivers League, leaving the door open for a new dynasty – and one that Ray is ready to shoulder.

Even after the losses of the league’s player of the year in 6-foot-2 power hitter Gabby Susee, as well as all-league talents like Kali Moore, Kylie Reinholdt, Krista Hardy, and Madison Kaplan, the Lions are well equipped to reload, and not rebuild, after one of the most successful volleyball seasons in school history.

Senior Taylor Albertson, who was the slightly lesser half of the Lions’ one-two punch with Susee last year, returns hitting harder than ever, and will be an anchor on both offense and defense as St. Helens battles for league dominance.

   St. Helens, though, won’t exactly be feeding on scraps from Albertson’s table. Junior Logan Kalauli returns as well, having grown in the offseason and will take on increased responsibility as an upperclassman.

“Last year was a pretty powerful team. They could hit the ball, and when you have Gabby [Susee] in the middle and always in the front row and then when she rotates back you’ve got Taylor [Albertson], you’ve always got somebody banging,” said Ray, who will enter his 15th season as head coach this fall. “We have Taylor and Logan, which did pretty good against the scrimmage last week. [The opponents] couldn’t stop them because they mix up their hits so much.”

Behind the two power hitters are not only a cast of capable varsity starters, but a long list of talent “waiting in the wings” for Ray, who said he has a practice of planning several years in advance, and though he’s focused on the season at hand, he is already working on developing players to replace the current starters.

And while it’s next to impossible to find a full replacement for a player like Susee, Ray thinks Albertson will be able to step into the vacant shoes and fill them out rather nicely.

“Taylor’s kind of filled in the role where Gabby [Susee] was,” he said. “Taylor should be player of the year. She’s pretty unstoppable, and she was hitting over blocks this week and at team camp.”

The focus so far, even for the players on junior varsity, has been about breaking records every day – B.R.E.D., for short. After warm-ups, the players team up and see who can string together the most sets, hits and digs without the ball spinning away into the stands. When a pair loses control of the ball, they return to their books to record the result, take a quick breath, and jump back into the action.

Midway through last season, Ray guaranteed a trophy for the team – and they did win one, the sportsmanship trophy – and if the team is working on constantly breaking last week’s records, the year could be a special one for the St. Helens program.

“Every time we step on the court, whether it’s serving or defense or whatever, they need to take that breath,” said Ray, pausing to dramatically demonstrate the breathing he is working to engrain in his players. “We call it the ‘haw’. That prepares them for whatever they do. Break records, that’s the warm up.”

The ‘warm up,’ dotted with all-leaguers as Ray kept interrupting himself to point out, emphasizes quickness and agility. Last years’ team was powerful, and Ray thinks they’ll need something different if they hope to repeat with a league title.

“The goal at the end of the year is league champs, and to get there, we have to be quicker,” said Ray. “We have to be in our defensive spot before the ball is hit. We have to be quicker, and that’s something we’re going to stress in all the teams, but especially with the varsity. They need to be waiting for the ball to be hit, and last year we got caught moving, and we cannot have that happen. We have to play ahead of it, and know to be in that position.”

Ray pinpointed Wilsonville, who finished second in the league a season ago and have returned a majority of their players, as the strongest competition for the Lions in the upcoming scramble. Because the NWOC now has nine teams with the addition of Hillsboro and La Salle and the subtraction of Sherwood, the Lions will only face league opponents once instead of the traditional home and away schedule. The benefit? They’ll get their one game against Wilsonville at home on Sept. 16, nestled amidst a host of tough non-league opponents. The league season kicks off on Sept. 2 on the road at Milwaukie.

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