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Cascade Christian's volleyball team poses with its second-place trophy at the Class 3A state tournament. Photo courtesy OSAA

Challengers' three-peat bid denied

FOREST GROVE — Cascade Christian came up short in its bid for a third consecutive Class 3A state volleyball title Saturday night.

Still, though Santiam Christian avenged its loss to the Challengers in last year’s title match by winning in four sets — 25-23, 23-25, 25-16, 25-17 — in this year’s final at Forest Grove High, Cascade’s players held their heads high in defeat.

That includes the seniors, who had the most reason to be heartbroken.

“This season has been a season of growth for every girl on our team,” outside hitter Caroline McMahon said. “Every person on our team grew immensely. I couldn’t be more proud of us just to get here.

“Every girl squeezed every ounce of effort out of themselves in every match. That means the world to me.”

Cascade coach Rob Kleker echoed those sentiments.

“Our girls’ overall determination and grit, and the way they worked to get better day in and day out, was amazing to see,” said Kleker, whose team finished 22-6. “I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

To capture the state title, Santiam (24-3) had to overcome an outstanding effort from McMahon, who recorded a match-high 24 kills and shared the match high in digs with senior middle blocker Kaylee Cannon (22).

“We came out wanting to defend our title,” Cannon said. “They came back with a vengeance after losing theirs.”

Junior outside hitter Olivia Borg was second on the Challengers in kills with seven, followed by Cannon with six. Sophomore setter Taylor Cave dished out 39 assists and also led Cascade in service aces with four.

Santiam won an intense first set in which neither team led by more than three points. Cascade was up 22-19 before a series of unforced errors allowed the Eagles to overtake the Challengers, who scored just once more the rest of the set.

That became a theme for the Challengers, especially in the final two sets.

“They continuously put pressure on us,” Kleker said. “Their big girls, Kassie (Staton) and Emily (Bourne), kept finding holes in our defense.”

Cascade seemed to have swung the momentum in its favor in the second set. The Challengers were down by seven points midway through and trailed 22-17 before McMahon tipped the ball over for a kill that ignited a run of five unanswered points which tied the set at 22.

Sophomore setter Taylor Cave recorded back-to-back aces during that spurt. Santiam briefly took the lead back on a kill by Staton, but McMahon answered with one of her own to knot the score back up at 23 and later clinched the set with an ace to the back left corner.

A brief pep talk from Kleker helped the Challengers loosen up late in the second set.

“Our approach to the entire tournament was that the pressure was not on us, but on everybody else,” the coach said. “We talked about that, the kids relieved a couple of things and played with a lot more energy.”

Alas, the Challengers seemed to tense up again in the third and fourth sets as Santiam’s big hitters, Bourne and Staton, repeatedly hit balls to places where Cascade players weren’t.

Cascade trailed 15-13 in the third set before Santiam went on a 10-3 spurt in which the Challengers’ only earned point came on a kill by Cannon.

The fourth set unfolded similarly: Cascade was only down by two, 17-15, before committing a series of unforced errors that all but handed the state championship to Santiam.

“They found our weak spots and picked on ‘em,” McMahon said. “We made crucial errors at crucial times, and Santiam emphasized that and went on a run.”

Staton recorded the kill that clinched the championship trophy for the Eagles, who should be even more formidable next season — their roster consisted entirely of juniors and sophomores.

If there was any disappointment on Kleker’s part, he refused to dwell on it, preferring to focus on the positives instead.

“I’m super proud these kids,” the coach said. “We were lucky enough to be here (in the state final) three times in a row. The preparation these kids put in, their willingness to learn — I can’t say enough about ‘em.

“It stinks to lose your final match of the year, but at least we went down swinging.”

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