On a Saturday in the middle of April, some of the best teams and athletes from 1A to 4A competed in volleyball, soccer, and cross country state championships. While I was in Pleasant Hill covering the 4A state championship, something special was occurring ten miles away at Creswell High School. A team, one that finished 15-1 was ending some winning streaks and knocking off undefeated powers. You’d think this team was a common pick to win the state title, but no media that made predictions had picked this school, making them a de facto underdog entering the semifinals. By the end of the day, the Burns Highlanders were queens of the 3A volleyball, having knocked off undefeated favorites Santiam Christian and Cascade Christian in back to back matches to take the title. Every team has a story, and here is the story of this underdog turned state champion….
Its Friday April 9th, the Burns Highlanders are going into their final practice of the season before arriving at the state tournament in Creswell High School. Stopping on the way to Creswell, Burns hit the court in Sisters before completing the trip to the valley. “Practicing in Sisters on the way over really helped split up the trip,” recalled Allie Hueckman. MacKenzie Wright concurred with Hueckman, “Having a laid back practice in Sisters really helped relieve the pressure before getting to Creswell.” As per tradition, Burns is used to traveling hours to play in matches, and this experience came in handy for the biggest games of their season.
It started with an early morning breakfast in Burns, feeding the starving stomachs of the team of 14 girls. The ride to Sisters was full of talking, singing, and positive team vibes, exposing the bulletproof team fabric that knits this team together. “We sang lots of 2000s classics that we all knew”, described Alicyn Hoke. “the old songs really made us remember the journey to get where we were.” “Taylor Swift’s oldies were really popular that day,” said Kaiden Raif. “but it was the bus ride to the school and the dance party we had before the game that really got us pumped.” After having lunch and practice, the girls had one more lasting touch to do before getting to Eugene for the evening, “When we finished lunch, we decorated our bus windows with decorative markers,” Hallie SkunkCap told me. “I think everything that we did on the way there really helped us get excited to get on the court and show what we were made of.”
Located about 2 1/2 hours east of Sisters along Highway 20, the Burns Highlanders have a history of volleyball success. A seven time state champion, the Highlanders were the most decorated out of the final four teams in Creswell, and yet didn’t get a single nod to win the state championship in any predictions. According to King, this is customary: “Everyone kind of views Burns as “underdogs”, but I don’t think any of us viewed ourselves as an underdog.” Kyla Epling says that the Highlanders knew anything was possible, “We knew that if we played at our level and put in even more effort than usual, we could make anything happen.” The idea of an underdog was news to Kaya Dobson, “We never considered ourselves underdogs, we knew what we needed to do to win and our drive pushed ourselves through.” This positive mindset showed in big ways once the state tournament came around on Saturday, with the Highlanders going against Santiam Christian and their huge winning streak….
Ready for anything from Santiam Christian, the Highlanders did some fine tuning with blocks and plenty of film study. The first set was a tug of war, with the Highlanders and Eagles going back and forth throughout. The winning streak looked prime to continue, as Santiam Christian knocked off Burns 25-21 in the opening set. Losing the opening set didn’t rattle Burns though: “The talk was to have high energy and being sure not to take out our frustration on each other, but instead take the frustration out on the next point,” described Alicyn Hoke. Despite not playing their best, Hueckman said that Burns made the adjustments and regained the mindset of a champion, “In the huddle, we really just talked about calming down and playing how we know how to, we also made some rotational adjustments.” Epling emphasized the huddle talk about positive mindset, “The talk was that we needed to have a positive attitude and start playing together,” Epling said. “The most important part was that we needed to start trusting our teammates.”
After the huddle, Burns faced a stiff battle from the Eagles. After going back and forth, the Highlanders got hot late in the set and shut the door 25-18 in the second set. The third set featured Burns jumping ahead then needing to hold off Santiam Christian, who got hot but couldn’t close the gap at 25-21. In the final set, Burns left no doubt to who was the better team, torching the Eagles 25-9 and successfully advancing to the state title game. Further, they ended the 46 game winning streak that Santiam Christian had carried dating back to 2019 when they lost to the 6A Sandy Pioneers. Wright and Hueckman both had 15 kills, Skunkcap had seven aces, and Raif had eight blocks in the match.
After defeating Santiam Christian, next came the task of knocking off undefeated Cascade Christian in the state championship. “We really didn’t have time to think about it,” said Wright. “it just seemed like another game at the time.” Hoke says that the momentum was the biggest thing that came with beating Santiam Christian, “It didn’t set in at all yet, but the momentum absolutely helped push us over the top with Cascade Christian, we just had to keep it up.” Hueckman described before the state title game when it sank in for her, “It didn’t sink in that I was playing for a state championship until I was running to the bathroom between games,” Hueckman recalled. “I just looked over at Alicyn and said “we are about to play for a state championship”, that’s all we really said and we just knew we weren’t done yet.”
In the state championship, Burns came out on fire. The Highlanders carried the momentum from their final set over Santiam Christian, rolling past the Challengers 25-15 in the opening set. The second set went to overtime, as Burns and Cascade Christian were in a dead heat to seize the critical momentum in the most critical of games. “It never felt like we were going to lose the second set,” Dobson said. “We just knew we couldn’t make any big errors and just had to finish the game.” Kaiden Raif says that this type of situation is one Burns practices a bunch, “In practice, we regularly play games that put us in situations like the one Cascade Christian had us in,” Raif said. “So have that experience and being used to that feeling really helped us push through the pressure. Losing wasn’t an option.”
Ultimately, the Highlanders prevailed 26-24 and took a commanding 2-0 lead over the Challengers. Cascade Christian never recovered, as Burns lit a match to the fuel and carried it to a sweep of the Challengers, securing their eighth state title in school history during a season when few thought we’d ever make it to a state championship game. Raif was the star that shined in the finals, unloading on Cascade Christian for 28 assists out of the 31 kills in the match. Wright and Hueckman had 15 and 11 of those kills respectively.
“Ever since I was little, I watched previous Burns teams win state championships and always dreamed of being in the dogpile in the middle of the court,” said Hueckman. “When the ball hit the floor, we all cheered, and piled on top of each other, it felt like a complete dream.” Kyla Epling said that it was a one of a kind experience, “Being honest, my whole body went numb and it was a feeling I’d never experienced before,” she described. “It felt like a dream and I never imagined this ever happening.” The tears flowed out of Hallie Skunkcap after an unforgettable championship point, “When the ball hit the floor, my eyes filled with tears of joy and I dove into the dogpile full of shock and joy,” Skunkcap said. “At first, it felt like a dream but after a few seconds reality hit me.”
There are different experiences in every state title, and Burns is no exception in the year of COVID. How exactly do you soak in winning a state championship in a year when we didn’t think we’d even have a season? “It didn’t honestly soak in until the night after when I thought about the entire experience,” Raif recalled. “We practiced hard months before the season arrived and it showed up on the court. I knew there was a possibility to play volleyball, but I never expected to be a state champion.” Makenzie King told me that it soaked in much faster for her, “It took about three minutes to soak in, everyone was crying and there were so many hugs given,” King recalled. “Something I will never forget is all the love that this team shares and the support we give each other.”
Kaitlyn Wright said that even though a state tournament might’ve been possible, she thought COVID would derail it, “It was an amazing experience and the lesson learned is that rankings are just numbers, you really never know who is the best until you play the top teams,” Wright said. “With COVID, I thought it was possible but given all the ups and downs, I thought it would be probably be canceled.” Alicyn Hoke says that the reality soaked in back where it all started, “It soaked in when we got home with all our parents and fans that night,” Hoke said. “It just helps me grasp clarity that hard work does pay off. With how committed everyone was, with this team I thought this was possible.” Kaya Dobson puts the bow on the Burns season, “It still hasn’t soaked in for me, but I am so thankful for the opportunity. We earned this even through the COVID situation, and we were able to push ourselves the entire season.”