TRI CITY — Before Sydnie Johnson delivered the first serve of the match, Irrigon had the appearance of a team that would be scrappy, but unlikely to derail South Umpqua from its pursuit of a Class 3A playoff victory.
For once, appearances weren’t deceptive.
After playing point-for-point early on, third-ranked South Umpqua pulled away for a straight set sweep of 17th-ranked Knights and claimed its first state tournament berth since 2000.
Set scores were 25-17, 25-10, 25-8.
None of the Lancers were out of newborn diapers the last time coach Sarah Gray led S.U. to the state tournament, but that mattered less to the players than the sheer accomplishment of advancing to next weekend’s state tourney at Forest Grove High School.
“It was our goal from the very beginning and now it’s here. We’re heading to Forest Grove on Thursday night,” Sarah Gray said. “I took a team in 2000, it was at Lane Community College and we were 3A, there were only four classifications then; Roseburg was 4A. It’s been 18 years and my kids were babies — Shalyn wasn’t even born yet.”
South Umpqua (17-4) will face No. 6 Horizon Christian of Tualatin at 10 a.m. Friday in the quarterfinals. Horizon Christian (15-4) swept St. Mary’s of Medford to advance.
On Saturday, S.U. junior Shalyn Gray — the daughter the coach hadn’t had yet — came through with five kills, three service aces and eight digs. She had oodles of help from the rest of the Lancer lineup as five players had at least three kills.
That balance throughout the lineup was important because Irrigon was focused on not letting the ball hit the floor.
“We weren’t really sure what to prepare for — we knew they weren’t going to be really tall,” Sarah Gray said.
“It definitely was not what we expected,” Johnson said after having 19 assists, 16 digs and three kills. “We adjusted in the middle of the first set and it worked way better than what we were doing before. They run a lot of higher sets and we’re not used to that, we’re used to to quicker sets.”
So the Lancers, who hadn’t been able to get more than a point lead on Irrigon early, became more patient at the net and their block went a long way in creating momentum.
“At the beginning of the (match) we were playing them based on their ranking and they’re much better than that,” senior Alyssa Rainville said. “We had to make the adjustment, hit holes and play our game. We’re used to the quicker game and that wasn’t the case (Saturday). We had to make plays and we did.”
Once the adjustments took effect, S.U. ran away with the match.
Rainville had four aces, seven digs and four kills. Jenna Whitmore had 10 digs, eight kills and seven blocks, and Kalie Mann had five digs and six kills.
S.U.’s hitting success was a credit to the team’s perseverance; when Knights libero Makenna Collins got near the ball, she seemed to make the dig every time.
But the toll of constantly defending left the Knights unable to counter attack effectively, and the Lancers played very well on defense themselves.
Sarah Gray inserted sophomore libero Brooke Abel into the lineup in the third set — mainly to give Whitmore some rest and a chance to recover after she tweaked a knee — and the junior varsity call up proved very adept. Abel served out the match, including a pair of line-hugging aces, to send the Lancers on to state.
“It’s really cool,” Mann said of Abel. “It was good for her, her first time playing libero and going into a (varsity) game, and she did really good.”
Now the entire Lancer squad gets to do something it hasn’t done before.
South Umpqua was close in 2017, when it shared the Class 4A Far West League title, but was unable to advance to the tournament. Having dropped to Class 3A this year, the Lancers made the dream come true.
“It’s been a really long time since we made it there,” Mann said. “This is our last time playing on this court.”
“It’s been one of our goals since I started high school,” Johnson said, “so it’s an awesome feeling.”