The Trailblazers played the part of gracious host here on Tuesday as they invited the colleges of Bellevue, Clackamas, and Mount Hood to Michael Smith Gymnasium for a two-way volleyball doubleheader.
Centralia College faced off with Mt. Hood in their opening contest and then came back to square off with Clackamas in the nightcap. As any courteous host is wont to do the Blazers allowed their guests to get comfortable and make themselves at home before they got around to helping themselves. Following that script Centralia found themselves on the losing end of a 3-0 sweep to the Saints before they found their groove in a 3-1 defeat of the Cougars.
Although they were swept in their opening match the Blazers were in contention throughout all three sets, falling by scores of 26-24, 26-24, and 25-22. Each set was its own nesting doll of excitement and frustration as the Blazers would make a run and then watch as the Saints systematically dismantled their advances.
In the first set Centralia led 4-0 and then 6-1 before winding up tied at 14, and then 16. The Saints claimed their first lead at 17-16 and then ran out to a 22-17 lead. The Blazers knotted the score up again at 22, 23, and 24 before their luck ran out. In the second set Centralia scored nine straight points in order to stake out a 9-2 lead thanks in large part to the fierce net play of Olivia Mitten. A strong defensive effort by Evy Elting helped Centralia extend their lead to 17-11 before the Saints came storming back again. Mt. Hood tied the game at 18, 19, and 22 before reclaiming the advantage 23-22. The game wound up tied again at 24 before the Saints applied the finishing touches. The third set included four ties but the Blazers were unable to get over the hump despite trailing by no more than three points down the stretch.
Centralia coach Susan Gordon said she expects her players will soon figure out how to come up with big points in crunch time. For now though, she admits that those big moments have a way of temporarily neutralizing their abilities at the worst times.
“It’s that fact that we’re actually going to win that scares them. Because they panic and they want to be that person but they’re not confident in themselves to be that person and put it away,” Gordon explained.
However, Gordon came away from the loss feeling impressed by the offensive attack of both Mitten and the left handed hitting Madelynn Skinner.
“Olivia has made huge, huge strides. Her front row, when she’s on, is just dominating,” said Gordon.
The Trailblazers coach added that being a southpaw certainly has its advantages for hitters like Skinner.
“It catches a lot of people off guard to begin with. She’s very aggressive when she’s in the front row and she’s very smart so once they start to read her and remember that she’s left handed she can switch it up a lot more than some other left handers,” added Gordon during the break between matches.
That intermission proved to be productive for the Blazers as they returned to the court with a newfound swagger, as well as a new libero, for their showdown with Clackamas. Those changes paid off in a big way as Centralia flirted with a sweep of their own by posting scores of 25-13, 25-15, 20-25, and 25-14 on the way to a match win.
“In the first match we were just okay with being good and we talked in between the games about how great teams know when to push and when to take it over the top. I don’t know, they bought into it I guess,” noted Gordon.
Rachel Wilkerson was the player who wound up in the pink libero jersey in the second game and, accordingly, she found herself in the thick of the action. The Blazers ran out to a 9-4 lead to get things started and kept pushing until they held a 21-10 advantage. After surrendering three straight points to the Cougars the Blazers finished things off with four straight points of their own for the win.
“We talked about it a little bit before the first game to have positive energy and we had a little bit in the first game but we really brought it out in the second game because we needed that win,” Wilkerson said.
Power hitting from Skylah Kunihisa and spot on passing by Macey Martin helped the Blazers to maintain their momentum as the match went on. In the second set the Blazers chipped away for a 6-1 lead before extending their advantage to 21-11 and eventually sealing the victory with three straight points.
Wilkerson said she enjoyed her time in the back row, especially since it seemed to help the team’s overall performance.
“I’ve kind of been going back and forth between hitting and passing. (Coach Gordon) just changes it up on us so I don’t know what to expect but that’s where she needed me today so that’s where I played,” Wilkerson explained.
Gordon said she made the change based on coach’s intuition.
“I’ve noticed with this team that if they’re not on that night they’re not on and we’ve got to change things up right away,” Gordon explained. “We have been running Rachel off and on as a libero because she can hit but it just seems to flow better when she’s our libero and Skylah’s on. If Skylah (Kunihisa) wasn’t on we wouldn’t have been able to make that switch.”
In the third set Centralia staked out a 5-1 lead and then spun that into a 13-7 cushion before Clackamas called timeout and the momentum shifted. A couple of confusing calls by the officials resulted in extended arguments by both benches and only added to the Blazers woes as the Cougars stormed back for the 25-21 victory.
Gordon insisted she wasn’t nervous after watching her team fumble away what had appeared to be a surefire match clinching victory.
“They let the officiating and a couple stupid calls get into their heads and they just lost focus,” Gordon said, noting that it was all part of her team’s cumluative learning experience on the day.
That lesson seemed to sink in immediately for the Blazers as they jumped on Clackamas from the get-go in the fourth set. Centralia took a 3-0 lead and quickly turned that into a 15-5 advantage before capping off the 11-point victory.
Wilkerson was all smiles after the match but admitted that she and her teammates still have aspects of their game that they can improve on.
“Definitely communication. That’s a big thing. We don’t have a lot of loud people on the court so to get everybody talking on the court is sometimes a struggle. But once we overcome that we’ll get it,” Wiklerson insisted.
Centralia (2-13) will host Linn-Benton on Thursday at 4 p.m. before traveling to Bellevue on Friday for a tournament.