The 2018 2A state volleyball tournament was an outlier. Or so hope Evergreen Conference powers Black Hills and Tumwater high schools.
Last season, the league was absent from state for the first time in 15 years.
Just as was the case this fall, Black Hills jumped out to an early lead in the EvCo standings, but a late loss to Tumwater dropped them to a second seed in the District 4 tournament at Hockinson.
Both teams lost early at districts and faced each other in a consolation semifinal.
Tumwater won, 3-1.
“When we lost to Tumwater, we figured ‘well, OK, at least they’ll go to state.’” said Black Hills’ senior setter Kailie Storm.
It didn’t happen. The Thunderbirds were swept in the third-place match by eventual state champion Ridgefield, and the EvCo was shut out for the first time since 2003.
“Everyone up here in our area is more determined now,” said senior outside hitter Brenna Nelson. “We’ve all had pretty good seasons and we’re looking forward to competing in districts.”
The Wolves hope a home-court advantage changes things.
This season’s district tournament will be at Black Hills beginning Thursday with top-seeded Tumwater meeting the 2A Greater St. Helen’s League fourth seed Mark Morris at 4 p.m. and the second-seeded Wolves battle GSHL third-seed Woodland at 6 p.m.
“Two years ago, we also had districts here. I think it helped our program so much because we knew how the gyms were,” said Storm. “We’re familiar with the site and other people haven’t played in our gym. Maybe it will frazzle them a little bit.”
Having the tournament at what the school likes to call the “Wolves Den” can also be a plus for the more inexperienced players.
“It’s also helpful to the younger players who’ve never even been to a district tournament,” said Nelson. “It will take some stress off of them not having to travel far away and compete.”
Like Tumwater, which turned to a co-coach combo in Jordan Stray and Jill Giudice after Emma Schuster’s one season in place of long-time coach Tana Otton, Black Hills has a new coach this season. Carissa Bounds, who was slated to be the ‘C’ team coach, took over at age 24 when Jessica Prigge resigned just before the start of the school year.
“It’s tough for the seniors to have a new coach come in for their last year. They’ve dealt with the change really well,” Bounds said. Her players took to Bounds’ style quickly.
“It was kind of hard switching things up senior year, but Coach Carissa’s managed it so well,” Storm said. “She’s really open with all of us. It’s real easy to talk to her, she knows what needs to happen. She’s always asking for feedback from us. She always has stuff for us to fix, not in a nit-picky way but in a good way.”
Said Nelson, “She has such great energy. She has a serious side that lets us comprehend what we need to fix and how to do it.”
Bounds had only previously coached at the club level since graduating from the University of North Texas, though she was involved with the Wolves during summer league.
“Black Hills has been a pretty successful program in the past, so I felt I had some big shoes to fill,” Bounds said. “It’s very rewarding coming in and being so successful my first year.”
Black Hills finished in a tie for first with Tumwater, 9-1 in league play and 10-4 overall. The Wolves didn’t lose a 2A EvCo game until the T-Birds beat them 3-1 on Halloween night.
But it wasn’t a case of instant success. The Wolves started 1-3, including losses to 1A foes Elma and Castle Rock.
“The beginning of our season was rough. We didn’t get our first win until right before league, so it was surprising we had such a good league season,” Bounds said.
Part of the Wolves’ progress may have come about as their younger players – Black Hills starts three sophomores – became more comfortable.
Nelson and Storm take pride in what they and fellow senior Destiny Knight have done over their careers, but each also points to a sophomore who has made a mark.
“Addie Ainsworth has outdone herself this year,” said Storm of the 6-foot all-around player. “She’s played outside, she’s played middle. She’s headstrong, she never gets down, she’s always positive about everything. She’s brought a different attitude.”
Nelson points to 5-foot-9 opposite side hitter Sage Foust.
“I’ve been impressed with Sage. She plays all the way around, front or back, wherever we need her.”
Bounds is also sold on her underclassmen but sees room for improvement as the post-season gets underway.
“We need more emotional toughness. With three sophomore starters, sometimes the mental toughness isn’t always there,” she said. “We’re going to be playing better teams in districts. They need to be disciplined and leave the mistakes behind.”
Nelson is convinced that will happen.
“When the competition level is higher, everyone on our team steps up,” she said. “It’s been impressive to see that.”
In other district play Thursday, River Ridge will meet White River at North Mason High School at 5 p.m. in a District 3 2A opener. Meanwhile, in 2B, Northwest Christian of Lacey meets Ocosta in a loser-out consolation semi-final at South Bend High School on Wednesday. The winner will meet either Raymond or Toledo for a state berth. Pope John Paul II began 1B play against Cedar Park Christian at Shoreline Christian’s gym on Tuesday night.