Ranked No. 23 in the state, Lions top St. Marys in five sets

by: VERN UYETAKE - West Linn's Hannah Clarke spikes a ball past a St. Mary's blocker during the Lions' second-round playoff win over the Blues.The main thing that the West Linn volleyball team lacked heading into this season was an abundance of varsity experience. But the Lions continued to take on a difficult preseason and tournament schedule before battling in what was perhaps the toughest league in the state from top to bottom.

Heading into the playoffs, the Lions were now seasoned veterans and appeared to be playing with a level of consistency that hadn't been seen yet this year.

“We always play a competitive schedule so we can get as much growth out of the team as possible,” coach Carl Neuberger said.

After a dominating play-in victory, West Linn put together what Neuberger called his team's most complete effort of the season against Reynolds.

The Raiders were seeded No. 11 in the state heading into the playoffs and the Lions were No. 21. However, West Linn was lined up to face Lake Oswego in the first round and, because of the stipulation that no two teams from the same league can square off in the opening round of the playoffs, West Linn was dropped one spot.

That proved to be a blessing in disguise for West Linn as it placed the team into a favorable draw.

While Reynolds was a strong squad, the team lacked height, which made the Raiders a good match-up for the Lions who are also not excessively tall at the net.

“When we dropped, I knew we could compete with anyone in our portion of the bracket, but you've still got to win the games,” Neuberger said.

West Linn fell behind 8-0 to start the match but quickly turned things around. The Lions began capitalizing on Reynolds hitting errors, and a 7-0 run midway through the opening set gave West Linn a 17-13 lead.

The Lions never looked back, making few errors to win the first set 25-18.

West Linn had all of the momentum from that point forward. The Lions jumped out to a slim lead early in the second game but Reynolds rallied to tie the match at 11-11.

However, strong defense helped propel the Lions on a 13-1 run that sealed the match and gave West Linn a 2-0 lead.

In the third game, West Linn again jumped out to a quick lead before Reynolds rallied to tie things at 17-17. The Raiders were poised to climb back into the match if they could steal the third game on their home court.

However, another big run from West Linn sealed the victory as West Linn won eight of the final 10 points, capturing the match 25-18, 25-16, 25-19.

In the second round, the Lions faced a relatively similiar opponent. St. Mary's was coming off a five-set upset victory over No. 6 Newberg.

West Linn had beaten St. Mary's twice in tournaments this year and, because the Blues were seeded lower than the Lions, West Linn received an unexpected home match on Saturday.

St. Mary's possessed a larger front line than Reynolds but the Lions had confidence with the earlier success the team had against the Blues.

The opening game went back and forth as both teams dealt with some early nerves.

St. Mary's rode the wave of its earlier emotional win and eked out a 25-23 win. But the Lions regrouped quickly and took control of the second set.

West Linn received terrific defense all night on the back line, getting big digs from Courtney Misner and Leah Beyer.

“Our defense kept us in the game and some clutch serving late,” Neuberger said.

At the net, the Lions also made sure to mix things up and didn't allow the St. Mary's block to get too comfortable.

“We tried to move the ball around and not hit it to the same place every time,” Neuberger said.

West Linn knotted the match with a 25-18 victory in the second. St. Mary's would rally again and some uncharacteristic miscues from the Lions allowed the Blues to capture another narrow 25-23 win to take a 2-1 lead.

But, with their backs against the wall once more, the Lions responded with their best volleyball of the evening.

The Lions came out of the break on fire and never let St. Mary's into the fourth game, getting big kills from Shawna Erickson and Savannah Davis and cruising to a 25-11 victory.

In what had been a back-and-forth match, St. Mary's seized the momentum in the decisive fifth game. The Blues went up 13-9 and were closing in on their second dramatic five-set win and a berth in the state tournament at Liberty High School.

However, the Lions rallied, getting some strong and consistent serving, something that had been a sticking point at times earlier in the match.

West Linn put the pressure on St. Marys' defense and rattled off a big run to knot the game at 14-14.

Having crawled back from the brink of elimination, the Lions then won the next two points to clinch its biggest win of the year.

West Linn earned a spot back in the state tournament where it is the lowest ranked team of the eight qualifiers.

But the Lions are brimming with confidence and playing their best volleyball of the year. West Linn opens the tournament Friday at 10 a.m. against No. 3 Roseburg, a team it has yet to face this year.

“We expect they will play like they did last year, with a fast offense,” Neuberger said.

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