CORVALLIS – If there's anything that Cascade volleyball coach Cristina Williams learned about her players this season, it's that they don't back down when they are backed into a corner.
“These girls are fighters,” Williams said. “Sometimes they're down a bunch, and I'm like, 'I'm not going to call a timeout because I know they're going to come back.'”
The No. 2-seeded Cougars showed their resilience on the biggest stage Saturday night, overcoming a one-set deficit against No. 1 Sisters to win a five-set thriller in the final of the OSAA/OnPoint Community Credit Union 4A tournament at Corvallis High School.
Junior Lucretia Benolken and sophomore Annabelle Peterson had 18 and 17 kills, respectively, for Cascade (22-4), which won 27-29, 25-17, 17-25, 25-18, 15-7 over the Outlaws (22-4) in a battle of Oregon West Conference co-champions.
“I guess we were a little scared, but we realized if we all play together as a team, we can beat them,” Peterson said of the comeback. “They're not impossible to beat, we just need to play our best and play as a team and have that encouragement.”
It is the first state championship for Cascade, which had not made the quarterfinals since 2014 and had not played in a final since 2013. Sisters fell short in going for its seventh title.
The Cougars have made dramatic improvement after finishing 4-14 in 2019. Many of the team's eight seniors helped start the turnaround as freshmen.
“They were athletic, they were just green as freshmen,” said Williams, the team's coach for 12 seasons. “Didn't really know the game, and they worked hard and learned. They embraced our younger girls, and those girls had more experience coming in. It just gelled. I'm so incredibly proud of them right now.”
The Cougars had the state championship on their minds from Day 1.
“That was our No. 1 goal,” Benolken said. “We came into the season knowing we have so much potential. We kind of went for a roller coaster throughout the season. It definitely wasn't a steady line.”
Cascade split its two conference matches with Sisters, winning at home in four sets on Sept. 23 and falling in three sets on the road Oct. 19. Saturday's contest was the rubber match.
“This is kind of like the tiebreaker, and we wanted it bad,” Benolken said. “When we found out they won, we wanted it.”
In the first set, Cascade failed to capitalize on three set points and lost 29-27. The Cougars responded to win the second set, but Sisters appeared to be in control in taking the third set behind the powerful hitting of sophomore Gracie Vohs, who had a match-high 19 kills.
Peterson had six kills in the fourth set as Cascade battled back once again, forcing the fifth set.
“We came off the court after that third set pretty defeated,” Benolken said. “Our coaches gave us a little pep talk, we changed our mindset, we came out there and we fought until the very end. We wanted that so badly.”
Down 4-2 in the fifth set, the Cougars ran off the next eight points to lead 10-4. Sophomore Jadyn Daviscourt served seven points during the run, which featured two of her eight aces in the match. Peterson took over at the net, pounding five kills in the set, including the final two points.
“We thought, 'If we stay calm and trust in each other, we can win this,'” Cascade junior Meah Carley said. “You can't play timid out there on the court, you just have to stay calm and trust each other.”
Said Peterson: “I feel like we had a lot of our fans, a lot of people cheering. We had a lot of energy, and we were just going all out because it could be the last game we ever play.”
As the Cougars kept pouring on the points, Sisters seemed powerless to stem the tide. Vohs said it will be lesson the Outlaws will take with the into the offseason.
“A lot this season we've won the first two, and the other team has battled back,” Vohs said. “Momentum is definitely a huge part of volleyball, and I think sometimes we lose sight of that. I think sometimes it's hard for us to get it back.
“We're a pretty young team, and I think the nerves kind of got the best of us. A lot of us, this is our first time being here, and it's a pretty big deal. It's a little bit farther drive, and I think their student section definitely was a little bit intimidating.”
The rowdy Cascade cheering section helped the Cougars build on their momentum.
“I also think it kind of messed with the other team,” Benolken said. “So the balance of it for us was definitely very helpful.”
As the Cougars celebrated, Williams tried to collect her thoughts and emotions.
“I'm in shock. I don't know whether to cry or smile,” she said.
“The girls, when they get their minds set, there's no stopping them. All of them have strong personalities, and sometimes it's hard to coach, but they always have one thing in their mind – they want to win, and they're winners. They just keep fighting and they don't ever give up.”