Sweet Home defeated Sisters, 25-22, 25-20, 20-25, 25-19, on Saturday afternoon to win the 4A culminating week volleyball championship match, played on a neutral court at Pleasant Hill High. The Huskies (15-1) played well in all phases to win the rubber match between the two Oregon West Conference powers.
Late in March, the 4A classification announced a plan to conduct a de facto state championship for most fall sports in Season 2. For volleyball, the six league winners and top two seeded runners up would be sorted into an eight-team bracket. The eight teams would play it out during the culminating week to produce a winner.
Unfortunately, the plan did have a hitch. Undefeated Valley Catholic, which defeated Sweet Home to win the 2019 4A title and had not dropped a set in 2021, was barred from participating.
“Our school is not allowing any of our fall sports to participate in culminating week,” Valiant coach Becky Kemper explained. “It is to allow our spring sport athletes to not miss a week of an already shorter season (and also because spring is the one season that didn’t get to play AT ALL last year.)”
Without Valley Catholic in the mix, the path was clear for the conference rivals to reach the championship match. Sweet Home swept both Cottage Grove and Henley. Sisters, which placed fourth in 2019, did likewise to Corbett and Junction City.
When the two teams first met this spring, Sisters took the home win in four sets. Two weeks later, Sweet Home won at home fairly decisively, 25-13, 25-17, 25-21.
From the first point Saturday, it was evident that the rubber match would be much more competitive. The play was intense; the teams determined. Rallies were long and points had to be earned.
Middle blocker Sophie Silva, one of four Sisters seniors, was brilliant in the first set, but her brilliance was match on the other side of the net by Sweet Home setter Savannah Hutchins, one of eight Husky seniors. Hutchins made several astounding defensive plays and distributed the ball on offense to help Sweet Home break open a close set midway through. Up 21-16, Sweet Home was able to hold off a late Silva-inspired surge to win 25-22. Jamie Seward and Bailee Hartsook were offensive catalysts down the stretch for Sweet Home, while libero Graci Zanona and DS Emily Windom contributed head-turning defensive efforts. DS Maddee Housen also contributed several big digs in her best game of the year.
Sisters raced to a 5-2 Game 2 advantage, intent on evening the set score. Shelbey Nichol helped Sweet Home work its way back into the set. The Huskies went ahead, 17-16, on Nichols’ swing and never trailed again. A 3-0 run that featured a Hutchins ace, sandwiched between kills from Adaira Sleutel-Burger and Teja Abbott, gave Sweet Home an imposing 23-18 late game lead. Hartsook finished off the win with a block to gain set point and a rocket shot at the angle to set the Huskies up with a two sets to none lead.
Sisters came out even more determined in Game 3. Led by setter Ellie Rush, libero Anessa Stotts and the offensive duo of Silva and OH Greta Davis, the Outlaws built a commanding, eight-point lead midway through, then held on for the 25-20 win to get them back into the match.
Sweet Home was determined to avoid an “anything can happen” sprint to 15 points in a fifth set and played its best volleyball in Game 4 to seal the win. Zanona was on fire in the back row, Hutchins used her middles and right side brilliantly and Hartsook was unstoppable on the left.
Hutchins’ served Sweet Home to a 20-15 lead only to see Sisters pull within three on successive Silva kills. The next rally was the longest of the match and included several brilliant digs, including one from Rush for Sisters that made me say “Wow!” It ended in Sweet Home’s favor on a hitting error and Hartsook followed with a kill that restored the Huskies’ five-point lead.
Sisters (12-3) got one back on a hitting error to pull within 22-18, but that point included an indescribable one-armed dig from Hutchins that sent a message to the Outlaws that they’d have to be better than their best to pull off a comeback. Rush, Silva and Davis tried their best but it was not to be. Kills from Hartsook and Nichol took Sweet Home to match point with five chances to seal the deal. The Huskies would need only one, as a net call started the celebration.
“As far as whether we would consider it a state championship, I would say yes,” said Sweet Home coach Mary Hutchins. “The 4A athletic directors consider this a state championship, which is why they purchased championship medals and trophies for first through fourth place. I have several spring sport athletes and they wanted to play in a culminating week event because that is what you work for the whole season. We would have loved to play Valley Catholic and welcomed the opportunity but they opted out. As my AD pointed out, every year teams have the option to choose to participate or not participate in the state tournament. He considers this the same.”
Sweet Home’s seniors pointed to their final season together every day since losing to Valley Catholic, 25-23, 25-23, 25-17, in November of 2019.
“Sweet Home returned their FULL roster of All-League and All-Tournament athletes,” Hutchins explained. “This was always the ultimate goal since falling short last year. We feel strongly that two very worthy opponents met in the finals and played a great game. In other interviews we have seen coaches referring to it as a state championship. Unfortunately, in any given year, there are challenges that befall teams, such as injury, ineligibility, etc. This year, with Covid, it added a new layer and we do not want to take away from any athlete that was possibly hindered due to this pandemic and their county metrics, etc. Yet we were able to play. Sisters proved themselves a more than worthy and skilled opponent. I think our two records this season speak for themselves and, yes, we are giving the girls the title of state champions.”