A year ago, South Umpqua shared the Class 4A Far West League volleyball championship with Marshfield and lost to Hidden Valley in the first round of the state playoffs.
The Lancers won’t have to deal with those strong teams anymore after dropping down to 3A. South Umpqua expects to contend for another title in the new FWL and is looking to play its way into the state tournament.
The other teams in the league include Cascade Christian — the defending 3A champion — Douglas, Sutherlin, St. Mary’s of Medford and Brookings.
“I definitely think we have the potential to make it to the state tournament this year,” said senior middle blocker Alyssa Rainville, one of six returning starters for S.U. “I think we’ve done great in nonleague, but have room for improvement. We’re improving each match and continue to work hard in practice.”
“There’s no doubt,” replied senior setter Sydnie Johnson, when asked if this is the most talented South Umpqua team she has played on. “We can be very good if we just keep working hard.”
In league openers Thursday, St. Mary’s (3-6 overall) is at South Umpqua (5-1), Douglas (5-1) travels to Sutherlin (2-4) and Cascade Christian (4-1) visits Brookings (2-5).
The top two teams get automatic berths for the state playoffs.
The Lancers’ lone loss was to Hidden Valley. S.U. swept Cascade Christian last Saturday in a nonleague match at C.C.
“We are older, obviously, and stronger offensively,” said Sarah Gray, in her third stint as South Umpqua’s head coach. “We’re definitely wanting to go to the next level, and succeed at the next level. The state tournament would be our ultimate goal.”
The Lancers returns five players who received all-league honors last year.
Shalyn Gray, a 5-foot-8 junior outside hitter and daughter of the coach, was the co-most valuable player of the FWL. Sydnie Johnson (5-8) and junior outside hitter Jenna Whitmore (5-9) were first-team all-league selections, senior middle blocker Kalie Mann (5-9) made the second team and Rainville (5-8) received honorable mention.
Senior Tayah Kelley (5-8), a frontline player, is currently out with an injury. Junior Tori Lind (5-8) and sophomore Ellery Smith (5-8) have filled in well, Sarah Gray said.
“We have a good chance (to win league),” Whitmore said. “We have a lot of drive and motivation to win ... we really want to win. We work well together as a team. We’re like family — very united and together. We’re always on the same page which is nice, and don’t have a lot of drama either.”
“I think we’re really going to do really well and can go farther (in the postseason),” said Shalyn Gray. “We are very close, kind of like sisters. We’ve been playing with each other for a long time and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Sydnie Johnson, Rainville and Whitmore are year-round volleyball players. Shalyn Gray competes in volleyball, basketball and softball; Mann plays volleyball and softball; and Kelley was a three-sport athlete last year.
“They’re friends on and off the court. Most of them are pretty close and have played multiple sports together,” Sarah Gray said. “They love volleyball, all of them. It might not be their best sport, but they love it enough to give it 100 percent.”
Sarah Gray, a 1995 graduate of South Umpqua, is in her second season of coaching her daughter at the high school. Formerly Sarah Taylor, the 41-year-old coach says it’s been a positive experience.
“I don’t think of her as mom, I think of her as my coach,” said Shalyn Gray. “I try to work really hard, so it’s not like I get benefits from her being my mom. She’s not laid back, but she pushes us. We just listen to her, so she doesn’t have to yell very much. She tries to keep pushing us to do our best.”
Kelli Johnson, one of Sarah Gray’s assistants, also has the opportunity to coach her daughter. Previously Kelli Allen, Kelli Johnson, 41, is a 1995 Riddle graduate.
“Honestly, I love it,” Sydnie Johnson said. “It’s nice to share my love of the sport with my mom. She’s been my coach since the fifth grade, so it’s been a really fun journey.”
Sarah Gray and Kelli Johnson were both all-league volleyball players during their senior years. Sarah, a setter, was a first-team All-Skyline Conference selection and Kelli made the All-Big Fir League second team.
The Trojans have a new head coach in Alisha Jones. Formerly Alisha Shigley, the 2007 Douglas graduate guided Sutherlin two years ago.
“We’re a young team (with only three seniors), but they’re doing pretty awesome,” Jones said. “They’re buying into the system and learning. My goal is for them to know how good they are. They don’t realize the potential they have.”
Douglas won its first five matches of the season before losing to Creswell in three sets.
“Our hitting is a strength, but the passing needs to be there first,” said Jones.
The coach says the Trojans have seven girls who play consistently: senior Juliana Allen, junior Kaitlyn McWhorter, sophomores Makenna Anderson, Mila Polamalu, Amy Dickover and Mackenzii Phillips, and freshman Ellie Wiegman.
Jones calls the Far West “pretty open. I think it’s a talented league, it should be a fun season.”
The Bulldogs, under second-year head coach Kathy Rice, lost to Henley in a 4A play-in match last year. Sutherlin only has two seniors and three freshmen are among its top six players this year.
“We started out with some tough opponents, but we’re improving and getting better all the time,” Rice said. “We’re just trying to develop a flow of teamwork and get rid of some of the nerves.”
Senior Sydnee Allen and junior Carmen Ganger, both outside hitters/middle blockers, are returning starters. Allen received honorable mention all-Sky-Em League last year.
“Sydnee is a senior leader who works really hard,” said Rice. “She’s a solid influence on the court and one of the most positive people I’ve ever dealt with. Carmen has the tools. I’m trying to get her to believe in herself.”
Freshmen Sierra Nielsen, Mallory Turner and Tianna Murphy are playing “above expectations,” according to Rice.
The coach feels her team is capable of finishing in the top two in league.
“It may take us a while to get there, but that’s the goal,” Rice said. “Athletically and talent-wise, we have that potential.”