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Cascade Christian junior Caroline McMahon and her Challenger teammates open the state playoffs Saturday in defense of the state championship they won last season. [ANDY ATKINSON/MAIL TRIBUNE]

Swinging for more

Caroline McMahon says she’s 5-foot-8, then coyly laughs because no one really believes her.

The Cascade Christian junior also used to exclusively play as a defensive specialist in volleyball, and that seems even harder to believe these days.

With a deft touch, powerful swing and tremendous court savvy, McMahon has been a rising force for the Challengers ever since her position change to outside hitter as a freshman.

The 16-year-old standout now has her team poised to make a run at a repeat Class 3A state title beginning at 1 p.m. Saturday in a playoff opener versus Willamina. Cascade Christian is seeded No. 1 overall with a 21-3 record.

“We’ve got a target on our back and we know it,” says McMahon. “We’re not going to take any game lightly and we’re going to remain focused on our goal and, of course, that’s the state title. We like to play what we call a faceless game, where no matter who’s on the other side of the net, they’re going to get our best game.”

For anyone who knows McMahon, that last factor is never a problem.

Few players carry the same zeal for the sport that she does, and that dates back to when she was “roaring to get started” playing in third grade in the shadows of older sisters Allison and Catherine.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever coached anybody who has the drive and will to succeed like Caroline has,” says Cascade Christian head coach Rob Kleker. “It’s funny because she’s intense but she’s not intense to the point where it’s a negative thing. She brings intensity to the floor but also has a smile on her face, and she’s a great great teammate trying to bring players along — and she’s not even in her senior year. She has all those intangibles involved that really make her a joy to coach.”

With the help of senior setter Allison Winter, whom Kleker and McMahon can’t praise enough for her team guidance, this season McMahon is averaging four kills, three digs and 1½ aces per set with a 52.8 kill percentage.

“She’s our cornerstone,” Kleker says of McMahon. “She’s the kid that I think the girls look to when things are going on, between her and Allison Winter, who are both captains. Allie is the quarterback who runs the ship and Carrie is kind of the hammer. She’s got that big swing and is sometimes able to make good things happen from nothing for us. I think the kids really feed off of what Caroline is doing on the floor.”

Last year, McMahon provided a nice complement to 3A player of the year Claire Hawkins as Cascade Christian stormed to its first-ever state title with a 31-1 record that included only seven sets dropped all season.

In the championship match against Creswell, McMahon racked up 15 kills and went on to be named first-team all-tournament as well as second-team all-state.

All of that seems a far cry from when the defensive specialist went to a team camp prior to her freshman year and forever had her world changed. It was at that camp that she caught the eye of former Olympic silver medalist Sue Woodstra, an aide at the camp, and Kleker for a swing that had the makings to be something special.

“We were wondering who we’d have on the other side next to Claire,” recalls Kleker, “and watching the kid swing, behind the 10-foot line not really from the net, I just remember looking at my assistant saying, ‘That kid might be able to play outside.’”

“She’s just really stepped in and excelled, literally from the word ‘go,’ and now I think she’s loving playing up there.”

Loving it on the front line is an understatement but, truly, it’s hard to imagine McMahon not loving any position she had the opportunity to play on the court.

“I have a love for the game, so every point is the same for me,” she says. “If it’s the first point and it’s going out or the last, I’m going to lay it out no matter what. I want to be aggressive to every ball and I want to be smart with everything I do when I’m playing. My heart for the game is very important for me. That’s the one thing that never leaves whether I’m having an off game or a great game.”

Off games have been few and far between for McMahon or the Challengers, who have withstood a shocking season-ending injury to senior outside hitter Alyssa Vaughn and are geared up for a playoff run.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a situation where something has affected our team emotionally to the core and our ability to play like that,” McMahon says of the injury that occurred during their only 3A loss this season, Oct. 7 against Santiam Christian. “It was a shock and hit us hard, but we came back and won two really big games, and since then we’ve had girls step up and fill those roles and been amazing. They’ve just got to keep their confidence up because we have faith in everyone on this team.”

“It’s made everybody else put their level up,” she adds, “and it’s made us all push ourselves and it’s made us play with a lot more passion because we’re playing for our teammate.”

And if that offers McMahon a chance to show off her 31-inch vertical leap in the process, well, so much the better.

“I think the most sweet part is getting that timing with your setter,” she says of her role. “Getting up in the air and then she just puts that ball in your hands, it’s a really nice feeling.”

As is being able to contribute to her teammates in any way possible.

“We’re all very supportive to one another so I know I would not be where I am without these girls,” says McMahon. “I’ve been with most of them since I started hitting, and them having confidence in me and Allie feeding me with those sets … I just want to work hard for my team. If they’re going to give me the ball, I want to put it down and get that point for them.”

— Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

 

 

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