The Banks volleyball lineup has pretty well been set in stone the last few years, but the graduation of several key seniors has forced some new faces to step into the spotlight.

Gone from last year’s team are a trio of three-time All-Cowapa League selections in libero Natalie Larsen, setter Marla Gooding and outside hitter Melissa Masters. Also gone are towering middle blockers Jennifer Hilger and Abby Hardie, plus versatile outside hitter Chelsie Bunn.

Those six players formed the nucleus of a team that finished second in the state in 2010 and third last year, so Banks head coach Suzanne Alley knew that a number of inexperienced players would be thrust into starting roles this season.

Luckily, she also knew that those young players were up to the task.

“I think everyone thought this would be a rebuilding year for us,” Alley said. “But that’s not been true so far. Just because we graduated basically our entire starting lineup doesn’t mean that we won’t be competitive.”

The Lady Braves took a few early lumps, losing their first two non-league matches to La Salle and Estacada, but the team was presented with a huge growth opportunity the following weekend at the North Marion Tournament.

“It was a really opportune time to go and play in that tournament, because they just got to play all day together,” Alley said. “Most of the girls on the team are either young in age or young in experience, so it’s a process.

“It takes a while to jell — to just get used to their positions and get used to playing together. But these girls have continued to improve every time they’ve taken the court.”

Banks won the North Marion Tournament, then went on to win five of its next six matches, including three straight to open Cowapa League play.

Buoyed by the steady presence of seniors Aubrey Rue, Kaylin Vandomelen, Lexi Chung and Samantha Duyck, plus the precocious play of freshmen MaKenna Partain and Megan Bunn, the Lady Braves are off to an 8-3 start after league wins over Scappoose and Astoria last week.

The Lady Braves were tested in both matches, going four sets against Scappoose and falling behind early in each set against Astoria before rallying for a three-game sweep. Banks picked up a 25-17, 25-23, 23-25, 25-15 victory over Scappoose last Tuesday, and a 25-19, 25-23, 25-18 win against Astoria on Thursday.

“The thing I like about these girls is that they don’t get real high or real low,” Alley said. “They’ve shown some pushback. They fight real hard in every match.”

Banks has gotten an offensive spark from Vandomelen and Rue, the two players who saw the most playing time last season. Vandomelen, an outside hitter, has improved her consistency at the net and become one of the team’s main weapons, while Rue, a setter, has capably filled the void left by Gooding’s graduation.

“Aubrey hasn’t been able to play as much because Marla was our setter for the last three years, but she has stepped up and is playing really well,” Alley said.

Ditto for Chung, who has replaced Larsen as the team’s libero, or defensive specialist.

“Lexi had some big shoes to fill doing the job that Natalie Larsen has done for the last couple years, but she’s done an amazing job,” Alley said.

The coach also had high praise for Duyck, a middle blocker who she called “our emotional leader on the floor.”

And as for those freshmen? Well, their impressive play hasn’t exactly been a surprise.

“We kind of knew we had a couple freshmen who could contribute right away,” Alley said of Partain and Bunn. “They started playing for us on our 14-and-under team, and they were playing 16-and-under last year as eighth graders.

“Sometimes they’ll struggle a little bit because, after all, they’re freshmen. But a lot of times they don’t play like freshmen.”

Alley said her young players have showed poise under pressure, even when they’ve been targeted by opponents.

“Opposing coaches will see a new face and that’s where they’re going to serve,” she said. “Sometimes they get picked on, but to their credit they’re not afraid of that.

“They have really risen to the challenge.”

The Lady Braves will be challenged this week by league rival Tillamook, the only team to beat Banks in its last nine matches. That loss came in a tournament at Sisters High School, so it didn’t count toward the Cowapa League standings.

Thursday’s match will count, however, and Alley’s squad will be looking for a little payback — and a chance to lengthen their lead over the Cheesemakers in the league standings.

“That would be a nice one to win,” Alley said. “Tillamook is tough. They’re really tall and they have some good hitters. It should be a good match.”

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