Thinking back on her last time on the floor during the Class 3A volleyball state tournament always brings a smile to the face of Cascade Christian’s Caroline McMahon.
It was an experience she won’t soon forget, and one the 5-foot-8 senior certainly hopes to repeat — maybe not in every way personally — with her Challenger teammates as they look to wrap up yet another stellar season under head coach Rob Kleker.
McMahon and company will open their bid for a third straight 3A state championship at 8 a.m. Friday against Burns (19-7), with the two-day event again played at Forest Grove High School.
The Challengers (21-5) enter as the No. 1 seed and with great memories of the tournament, in large part because of the unbelievable way in which they were able to finish things off in 2017. Cascade Christian rallied to edge Santiam Christian in a five-set thriller — 21-25, 20-25, 26-24, 26-24, 15-8 — that saw McMahon come unhinged in achieving a state-record 42 kills to go with 17 digs and four aces.
“That may have been the single greatest performance I’ve ever seen from a high school athlete,” says Challengers head coach Rob Kleker, “certainly at least in volleyball.”
That effort helped McMahon later become the state’s 3A co-player of the year and a two-time state champion, and certainly remains on her mind to this day.
“I feel like I haven’t recovered yet from that final,” admits McMahon. “The emotional and physical exhaustion we felt as a team was incredible and, personally, I had never really been able to unlock that mindset in myself but I just decided on the court that I wanted to win and I was not going to let my team lose.”
As the 17-year-old standout recounts, some of her best memories truly come not from what she did, but from what her teammates were able to provide.
In that final, Kaylee Cannon (eight kills), Gabbi Burton (five kills) and Olivia Borg (seven kills) provided standout performances, along with key efforts by a pair of players no longer with the Challengers, graduated senior setter Allison Winter (59 assists) and libero Aubrey Kievit, who had 24 digs and is now playing for Crater as it opens the 5A state tournament Friday in Hillsboro.
“It was a total team effort,” says McMahon. “I love watching the video back again and seeing the girls make the saves to set me up for that hit or for Allie to set me up with a perfect pass. It was an amazing experience and something that I’m especially thankful that I got to be a part of.”
Her own dominant performance, though, definitely put a target on McMahon’s back that, realistically, is a challenge to live up to as Cascade Christian returns to the eight-team event.
“At times it’s daunting having those numbers to my name and can she do it again,” says McMahon, “but I’m grateful I get to hold that title as state player of year and state champion and I don’t get caught up in all the other stuff.”
McMahon and Cannon have been on the varsity roster for four years, and McMahon has a chance to wrap up her run as the most decorated player in program history. A likely third straight all-state honor and potential repeat 3A player of the year award beckon for someone who didn’t even begin playing as an outside hitter until her freshman year.
“She’s been the kid that when she steps in the gym, for the most part, you know what you’re getting,” says Kleker. “You know you’re getting a kid who comes out to work her tail off for her team and not leave anything behind on the court. She’s one of those kids you wish you could clone or take parts of her and embed in other kids because she has all the tools.”
This year, McMahon has stepped up even more in a leadership role to go with her usual on-court talents, and is averaging 5.1 kills per set (414 overall) with a .477 kill percentage and .343 hitting percentage. McMahon has 51 aces and 244 digs (9.8 per match) to go with an increased role on serve-receive.
“For her, she has a drive to be the best,” says Kleker. “If you put a task in front of her, she’s going to do everything she can to do it exactly the way you explain it and be the best one to do it. That kind of drive is just different than most kids, she just has that uncanny want to do well and to do the best.”
McMahon definitely credits Kleker for helping her become the player she is today.
“I always talk about how lucky I was to start hitting with Rob because of the offense he runs,” she says. “It’s very quick and it’s fast-paced and now I feel like I’m able to get to the ball better and I’m a quicker hitter, which especially as a shorter player, is really important.”
What McMahon says has also been invaluable is the like-minded, aggressive players she has the good fortune of constantly being surrounded by at Cascade Christian.
Fellow seniors Cannon (127 kills, 42 blocks, 169 digs) and Burton (51 blocks) have been joined by the junior Borg (120 kills) and sophomores Hannah Stanfield (73 kills, 26 blocks, 111 digs) and Taylor Cave (61 aces, 112 digs, 704 assists) are truly what makes the Challengers special, according to McMahon.
“It’s been a lot of hard work but it’s been really rewarding to see this team has come just as far as the other teams have,” says McMahon. “All the girls work really hard and it would be really awesome to see all the hard work pay off. For the girls around me to keep growing like they have and fill those empty positions we had, it’s really brought about an appreciation in me and made me extremely proud of my team and made me want to try even harder for them.”
This weekend certainly won’t be an easy one, with Burns only the first hurdle in a bracket that includes tough challengers like Blanchet Catholic and Salem Academy — which would be a 6:30 p.m. Friday semifinals foe should the Challengers advance — to title threats Santiam Christian and South Umpqua on the other side of the bracket.
“The girls just need to have confidence in themselves going into these three matches and realize we got there for a reason and we have the skill to do it,” says McMahon, who has committed to play next year at Northwest Nazarene.
The team’s mantra has been to take things one game at a time and not worry about the end game of winning a state title, but McMahon does begrudgingly offer up some perspective to what will be the final matches of her unprecedented campaign at Cascade. The Challengers have gone 100-13 during her time entering the state tourney.
“I’m so incredibly thankful for every single team I’ve been on,” she says, “there’s not been one team I haven’t been thankful or grateful for the seasons we’ve had. Each season has been different and each season has brought something different and amazing into my life.”
“But as much as those last state championships meant,” adds McMahon, “to win this one means a lot more. I’m lucky enough to go on and play in college but still it means a lot to play with my team and coach Rob. As long as my team goes out and plays its hardest, I’ll be happy, but another state championship would be pretty amazing.”
And a fitting end to a storybook career by McMahon.
“I don’t know that you could ask for a better kid off the court to go along with all the accolades she’s gotten on the court,” says Kleker. “Carrie’s accomplished just about everything you can do in volleyball at this level.”