Years removed from the state tournament, Estacada volleyball has its best team in a while

As the Estacada volleyball team gathered around head coach Shawna Lippert at practice the other day, the scene was fitting.

As the players looked up at their coach and the writing scribbled across the white board, sitting clearly within their peripheral were the two volleyball state championship boards. As they absorbed everything Lippert was saying, surely it was their quest to add a third board to the wall that weighs on their minds every day at practice.

If you ask Lippert, she’ll say this is the best team she has had since taking over the Rangers volleyball program in 2008. In fact, she says that even looking forward, this might be their best chance at adding a third championship to the wall.

“Right now has to be the year,” she said. “We have everything we need and I don’t want us to lose hope, this is our year. By far this is the best team I’ve had, especially offensively.”

Having played together since middle school, this group of players has climbed as high as second in the state rankings this season thanks to strong play in a number of high-level tournaments.

“Our expectation is to get to the state tournament this year,” senior captain Rachel Lowe said. “Our goal is to work together and to be intense every game.”

For Lowe and her teammates, the combination of their plan and their talent showed its dividends early on this season, when the team traveled to Banks for a massive rivalry game.

In 2011, the Rangers lost seven matches all season and three of them were to Banks — by a combined score of 8-0.

This time around, the Rangers gave themselves all the reason in the world to believe in themselves, beating the Braves 3-1 in their home gym. Banks is ranked fourth in the state.

“That was a big accomplishment for us,” Lowe said. “It was an important hill to get over because we had always beaten ourselves mentally, but this year we said we wouldn’t back down.”

Riding high, the Rangers entered their first league match of the season at 5-1 as they traveled to Madras and found an unexpected speed bump. With dreams of going undefeated in league, Estacada was beaten 3-2 (25-23, 25-22, 21-25, 16-25, 15-12).

“They were scrappier than we thought and we had it in our head that no one was better than us,” Lowe said. “That was a good kick in the butt for us, because after that we have focused more on not letting it happen again.”

Since that loss, the Rangers have continued to improve, sweeping Molalla, North Marion and Gladstone in their next three league matches before dominating their top two competitors, La Salle and Madras, last week.

Part of the reason for Estacada’s success has been their intimidating front line of hitters, which is deeper than ever.

“This is the first year with more than one big hitter,” Lippert said. “Rachel (Lowe) has been our go-to girl for three years, but now Sarah (Davies), Tori (Johnson) and Sam (Hammons) are all right there. Now the focus just needs to be on defense.”

At the heart of this year’s defense is senior Haley Lusher, the team’s libero. Like Lowe, Lusher is playing in her third season on varsity, having waited her turn for the coveted libero position.

In fact, Lusher thought 2011 would be her chance to move into the role with the graduation of the team’s libero a year earlier. Then, from out of nowhere, a foreign exchange student from Italy surprisingly earned the position.

“After my sophomore year, I wanted to be libero, so it was hard to have the exchange student come last year, but I learned to play other positions,” she said. “This year I have really enjoyed it, though, because the libero is in the game a lot and I get to read and dig a lot.”

From an outsider’s perspective, a team as well put together as the Rangers and with as much veteran leadership as they have, the mental part of the game would seem to come easy.

For Lippert and her staff, however, the mental side of the game has actually been the team’s biggest barrier.

“A lot of times they just doubt themselves, and that needs to go away so that belief can start,” she said. “I’d like to think we’re through the mental part, but I don’t know.”

In hopes of strengthening her program’s mental makeup, Lippert has brought in the Gold Medal Squared philosophy. This new program has brought new thinking to how to run practice, how to play defense and how to pass the ball.

“This is our second year in the program and I think we’ll keep getting stronger and stronger,” Lippert said. “It brings a high level of thinking because it’s not just about skills, it’s a thinking game. We’re learning from the best.”

As the dividends continue to pay off for the Rangers, the question remains as to whether they have what they need to make a deep run at state this year. The team hasn’t made it to the eight-team state tournament in more than five years.

“Our goal is to win every match from here on out,” Lippert said.

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