NEWPORT — Before last school year, Newport High School volleyball head coach Vicky Roller probably never imagined how she could reflect on an undefeated season and think of it as bittersweet. But earlier this week during a preseason practice at Newport’s Spangler Court, Roller said that’s exactly how she felt about looking back at Newport’s unblemished 10-0 campaign from last school year.
Roller knew heading into the 2020-21 year her team was poised for success, and featured a locker room full of experienced and team-first student-athletes. Including a trio of seniors in middle blocker/outside hitter Hannah Driebergen, outside hitter Michaela Wagner and setter M’Kenzie Kirchner
However, due to pandemic protocols, the volleyball season was not only delayed from autumn 2020 until early March this calendar year, the Cubs competed in just 10 matches, all played against Lincoln County School District competition, save for their season finale at home against Elmira. Newport swept its first seven matches without dropping a game — winning two matches each against Toledo, Taft and Waldport — before surrendering single sets in matches against Toledo, Taft and Elmira to close the season.
Following their season-ending 3-1 defeat of Elmira in April, Newport outside hitter/middle blocker Stella Barber, then a junior, said the campaign was a special one.
“This season was a blessing in disguise for us,” Barber, one of Newport’s three returning All-LCSD volleyball team selections, told the News-Times. “The six of us became one and truly showcased our talent. We played through all the good and the bad together to have a rewarding season of 10-0.”
Despite their impressive list of accomplishments from the previous season, and the fact they return senior captains Barber, middle blocker Rachel Smith and outside hitter/libero Carlee Murray, the Cubs did not receive a single vote in the Oregon School Activities Association’s preseason coaches poll, released Monday. That should be a good bit of motivation for Roller’s team.
“This is a new team with new personalities,” Roller said. “What remains consistent is the expectations are high, and they (the student-athletes) will do the work to rise up. There is a deep desire to become a team and get in the gym and get better every day.”
Roller, now in her fourth year at the helm at Newport, said this year’s Cubs are expected to rely heavily on the development of a pair of sophomores in setter/defensive specialist Lexus Hunter and setter Taylor Morrison.
“Both have very different styles from one another, but what they share is the desire to learn and develop,” Roller said. “Lexus has so much heart and hustle, while Taylor is a student of the game.”
Coaches around the state showed their respect for the 4A-3 Oregon West Conference the Cubs are in by ranking four league programs in the top-10 in the preseason coaches poll. Sisters, which finished 12-2 last season, is ranked second in the initial 4A poll, while Sweet Home is third, Philomath is seventh and Cascade is ranked 10th.
After a season without playing Oregon West Conference competition, Roller said she and her Cubs are anxious to face off against the league’s best.
“It will be great to play powerhouses Sweet Home and Sisters again,” Roller said. “We want to get to that level, so we must play against that level. I’m looking forward to seeing how this team gels together.”
The 3A-3 Coastal Range League Tigers return six starters from a season ago, when Taft finished 4-6, with four of those losses coming at the hands of 4A Newport.
Senior setter Lily Hatton and junior libero Nat Gates earned All-Lincoln County School District volleyball team honors last season, and along with senior outside hitter Addie Gates, and junior middle blockers Hailey Weaver and Aleah Bailey, have the Tigers aiming for greater success. Hatton led the team in aces, and the Tigers’ service game should be a team strength.
Fifth-year Taft head coach Kelsey Hart, who played college volleyball at South Florida, expects her back row to anchor the Tiger defense.
“Back row defense is a huge strength for us,” she said. “The Gates sisters and Natalie Ramirez get the ball up to our setter to give us the best chance to get our offense going.”
Hart listed sophomore setter/hitter Malli Lewis, junior setter/right side hitter Brooklyn Mangold, senior middle blocker Erika Ariss, senior utility player Logan Jack, and hitters Ali Tolan, a sophomore, and senior Taye Johanson, in her group of players to watch.
Without having competed against 3A-3 Coast Range League foes last season, Hart says its difficult to assess how her team stands in comparison with the rest of the league prior to competition.
“Our plan is to assume every match is going to be a fight, and come prepared to leave it all out on the court each game,” she said.
Hart says Taft was working on making its frontline more efficient at the net during preseason practice, but Tiger coaches and players can’t wait for the season to start.
“The coaching staff and the team are very excited to see where this season takes us,” Hart said. “Practices so far have looked excellent, and the team is hungry to show what they can do now that we’re back in our normal league. The Tigers are ready to play some high-level volleyball this year.”
New Waldport Irish head coach Jeff Lee was starting from scratch and getting to know his athletes early this week, but was already raving about their overall attitude toward preseason practice.
“What I’ve seen from them so far is just a tremendous willingness to learn,” Lee, a recent northern California transplant said earlier this week. “They have athletic capabilities. We have some solid tools to work with. That said, they have a lot to learn, but they come to practice ready to learn. They soak it up.”
Waldport went 1-9 last season, picking up its lone victory in an early-season sweep of the Newport JV. Though on paper the Irish appear to be starting from the ground up, they do return some experienced athletes who will lead the program to brighter days ahead.
Lee said senior Charity Smith, who should see most of her time on the court at outside hitter, has already shown leadership by example and should be a focal point of Waldport’s offense.
“She’s a strength, she’s a leader and she’s probably a good part of the reason I’ve got these girls here at an optional practice a half hour early,” Lee said. “She’s just that kind of kid.”
Sophomore Lillyn LeGrand and senior Baylee Dunn will be major contributors to the program’s growth from the middle blocker position. Setting duties for the Irish will fall between junior Cayden Ritchey and senior Novalee Thomas, while senior libero Mary Albitz and sophomore Airyanna Paden also bring experience to Waldport.
Some might expect Waldport volleyball, a program that’s won just 17 league matches the last 10 seasons, to be happy just to win a match or two this season. But Lee says if his team maintains the same effort it has already shown him throughout the season, the Irish have the potential to exceed expectations.
“We’re going to go out and I think they’re excited to be competitive, but I’m not that humble,” Lee said, “I think we can do more than that. If they keep practicing like they have, far better than an average of 1.7 league wins a year is surely on the horizon.”
Editor’s note: The News-Times made multiple attempts to contact coaches from the Toledo, Siletz Valley and Eddyville Charter volleyball programs, seeking detailed team information for a season preview, but was unsuccessful.