St. Paul senior setter Jordan Caldwell is the team's only returning captain. (Photo courtesy St. Paul HS)
St. Paul senior setter Jordan Caldwell is the team's only returning captain. (Photo courtesy St. Paul HS)

Coming off back-to-back 1A championships, St. Paul's volleyball team hasn't had much to cheer in the past year or so.

So when the Buckaroos received word Tuesday that Marion County had moved from extreme risk to high risk – allowing them to start their season next week – it was cause to celebrate.

“We're so excited,” St. Paul coach Lesli Hiller said. “We're really hoping to set up a few games that are super highly competitive, and at least get a feel for it again. I'm excited to see them all together against another team, and see how it all comes together.”

St. Paul was planning on surprising the state this season. The Buckaroos would have been under the radar after graduating four senior captains – including first-team all-state tournament hitters Isabelle Wyss and Erin Counts – but they believe a three-peat was within reach.

“Definitely. I have no question in my mind,” said Hiller, a 1986 St. Paul graduate who has guided the team to 239 wins and 10 state tournament appearances in 11 seasons. “They've improved tremendously. It would've been one of those years that nobody would've seen us coming after what we graduated last year.”

Hiller likes the team's chemistry, which starts with the only returning captain, senior setter Jordan Caldwell. The 5-foot-6 Caldwell not only runs the show, but she was the third-best hitter on the two state title teams.

“She's just really leading these girls and improving our hitters so much,” Hiller said. “She just reads what they need. She's just a phenomenal setter. I'm hoping that somehow she's going to get seen by a college and picked up.”

Senior outside hitter Mary Davidson, who transferred from Gervais as a junior, is vastly improved after making a deeper commitment to the game.

“This year she came back with so much confidence,” Hiller said of the 5-10 Davidson, who also plays basketball. “She worked on her jump reach. She just got to the point where she can really pound the ball, and it's not going to get seen as much as it should.”

The Buckaroos also have Paige Curtis, a 5-8 senior middle blocker who has developed her quick attack, and a promising freshman hitter in Stella Koch.

Last fall, St. Paul was able to get some much-needed competition by splitting into two teams to play in a 4-on-4 league at The Courts in Beaverton. Hiller said it was a productive experience for the Buckaroos.

“They improved a lot through that because with 4-on-4, you've got to cover more court,” Hiller said. “The kids were getting a lot of serving, serve-receive.”

St. Paul started practice this week, but because of the county being in the extreme-risk category, was limited to six-person pods and 45- minute workouts. They finally will be able to scrimmage Friday when the county moves to high risk.

The Buckaroos, who are 28-0 in the Casco League since returning from 2A in 2018, are seeking to fill out their limited schedule with some of the state's top small-school teams.

They will have a league match against Perrydale, the Casco runner-up the last two seasons, and just added a showdown against Powder Valley, the team they beat in the last two state finals. The Powder Valley match will be at Dufur on March 12.

“We've got to find ways to get games with some of the stronger teams in 1A, or maybe a step up or two,” Hiller said.

St. Paul is not averse to challenging top teams from higher classifications. In 2019, the Buckaroos' only losses to Oregon teams came against Kennedy and Portland Christian, 2A champion and 2A semifinalist, respectively.

St. Paul traveled to Arizona to compete in the Nike Tournament of Champions in 2019 and had planned to participate in the event again in 2020. The Buckaroos intend to go back this fall.

Last week's announcement that the OSAA will return the “culminating week” to the schools, rather than stage a state championship, was disappointing to St. Paul, according to Hiller.

“For a lot of the kids, that's what it's all about, especially when you're in the lower classification like we are,” Hiller said. “That's when you really get your good competition is that week of playoffs and state. To take that away, it makes it really hard, especially on the seniors.”

Hiller hasn't given up hope that the top 1A teams can meet during the culmination week for what would amount to a de facto state tournament.

“That's exactly what's running through our heads,” Hiller said. “I'm sure we're all thinking it, and now that the counties have all opened up more, I'm sure it's going to be in the works. We definitely would like to be in on that.”