Sutherlin — It all came to a close on a floor in Corvallis: The Sutherlin Bulldogs finished state runner-up to the Burns Highlanders, who had just defeated them to win their second consecutive state title. Heartbreak? Sure. A wanting of that blue trophy? Oh yes. However, Sutherlin had ultimately accomplished the mission of Coach Kathy Rice….reach the 3A state championship. “Coach Rice told us that our final goal was to be in the state championship game,” sophomore Josie Vermillion explains. “That expectation was evolved by being co-league champions, beating Cascade Christian in the final game to be the top league seed, and then just keep winning.” Junior Sierra Burdett says that the final result was culminated from the start, “Going into the season we had very high hopes as we knew we had a good team,” she said. “As the season progressed we found out that we could do a lot with the team we had and the chemistry we had created.” Fellow Junior Haley Smoldt concurred with her teammates, “As we started the season off, it was very clear that once we all learned how to play together and trust each other, we were going to be a great team,” Smoldt explained. “As the season went on we began to realize how well we worked together, and I believe that it pushed us harder because we began to really believe in ourselves.” All of those expectations, belief, and momentum resulted in the best finish in program history for the Sutherlin volleyball program.
The year kicked off with a fast 2-0 start with wins over Phoenix and 4A Siuslaw. Sutherlin entered into a three-way meet on September 2nd with the two teams they would ultimately face in the Final Four: Burns and Creswell. At the time, no one knew that top seed Santiam Christian wouldn’t make it, nor that Sutherlin would be seeded as an eight seed for the playoffs. In the meet, the Bulldogs took Burns to five sets before being swept by Creswell, dropping to 2-2 on the season. After the sweep in Creswell, the Bulldogs ripped off seven wins in a row and the season started coming together. Senior Tianna Murphy gives credit to their “brutally honest” leader for getting them rolling, “Our coach really helped us keep up our consistency,” she said. “She was brutally honest with us, letting us know what we were doing wrong and what we need to do to fix it.” Sophomore Emily Engelstad opted to discuss their momentum in terms of mental mindset, “What helped us a lot was trying every game not to get down,” she said. “And even though sometimes we would, not getting down was our goal pretty much every game.” The mental toughness, momentum, and brutal honesty got them to the state playoffs as an eight seed, an uphill battle to make it to the Final Four.
The opening round was a breeze sweep of Yamhill-Carlton, setting up for what was widely expected to be a date with top-seeded Santiam Christian. Then news rolled in that it wouldn’t be the case….instead it was a fourth date with conference rival Cascade Christian. “I was very surprised that Cascade Christian had beat Santiam Christian,” Burdett said. “We all knew that we were going to go into that game with so much drive and intensity no matter who we played.” Englestad expressed similar sentiment, “Honestly I was surprised that we wouldn’t be going against Santiam Christian.” However, Tianna Murphy had a different take on the 16 seed upset, “I wasn’t very surprised to hear Cascade Christian won, they were very underrated,” she explained. “However, the last thing we expected was to have to play them 4th time this season in the playoffs.” Vermillion gave a hot take on playing the Challengers once again, but this time for all the marbles, “Having to play them for the 4th time this season, we knew we could beat them, but also knew we would have to play a very good match to beat them again,” she said. “Its never really easy playing the same team that many times.”
As expected, the fourth edition of this contest would be hotly contested and fought, but the Bulldogs ultimately won the one that mattered the most. With the win, they advanced to the Final Four to play Creswell, a team they had faced twice to the tune of being swept and getting a sweep. For Sutherlin, the pressure was higher than it had been all season, facing down the barrel of one game away from a possible state title. For Smoldt, the plan was pretty simple, “We didn’t have much of a game plan, we went in confident and knew that we just needed to play as a team,” she said. “The only game plan we had was to come out fired up and give it everything we had.” Vermillion shined similar confidence for the matchup, “The plan for Creswell was to honestly just play our own game,” she explained. “At that point, we knew that we were playing very well together and if we played our game all the way through, we had the win in the bag.” For Murphy, what was to come was simply something she had never experienced before, “We knew that Creswell played smart, so we had to be on our toes,” she recalled. “I’ve played a lot of volleyball in my life, and that game was easily the biggest roller coaster game ever.” Indeed, what a roller coaster match it was.
The first set was an instant classic marathon, finishing with a 33-31 Sutherlin set win after trading back and forth blows. The next three sets were much more normal: 25-19 Creswell, 25-16 Sutherlin, and 25-18 Creswell, setting up for the epic fifth set with a state title berth on the line. Creswell jumped to a 7-2 advantage in a decisive 15 point final set, putting the Bulldogs on the rocks, but then something magical happened that changed the course of the match. Seniors Tianna Murphy and Kaley Kuxhausen got rolling with serves, climbing Sutherlin back into the game and giving them all momentum. “Being down 2-7 in the final set and serving the team back into the game with Kaley Kuxhausen helped us get our mindset and a refusal to give up,” Murphy recalled. Sutherlin reeled off a 13-1 run to stun Creswell and advance to the state championship game, achieving the goal that the program had from the beginning. “I honestly think what helped us through to finish the game was sticking together as a team and knowing that we can do it, we’ve done this hard of a game before,” Englestad said. “We knew it would be a tough game, but we were only one win away from a state championship,” Vermillion said. “Our ability to push through the game ultimately pushed us past the finish line.” As the Bulldogs headed to the final pairing, defending state champion Burns was waiting for them.
For some teams, it was an intimidating environment, but Smoldt told the tale in a different way, “I don’t believe we were intimidated, we were very excited to be where we were in the state championship,” she recalled. “The keys we had to beating Burns were just to go out, play our game, and do what we knew how to do.” Vermillion says that the Bulldogs were to a degree color blind on preparation, “We treated the state championship as just another game. Obviously, we had nerves and excitement for the game, but we just prepped normally like we do for every game,” she said. “The fact that we also played Burns earlier in the season and went to five sets helped us not to be intimidated either.” For Murphy, it was an all guts for the glory approach, “We knew that Burns was incredible, but so were we. At that point, we had nothing to lose and had gotten further than any Sutherlin volleyball team ever had, so we were honored to be in that position and play them.”
Sutherlin took the opening set from Burns, sending the Highlanders into a spin and adjustment mode. After that, Burns slammed the door shut on the Bulldogs, taking the next three sets to take home their second straight state title, but the final result certainly didn’t nullify what Sutherlin had accomplished as a program. For Murphy, its a difficult separation as she moves on as a senior, “Being an underdog isn’t a bad thing. I’m so proud of this team, and sad to be leaving such a talented group of girls,” she said. “Expect a team that isn’t afraid of anything and an amazing group of coaches backing them up next season.” “We made it to the state championship game, and in the beginning we weren’t sure if we could do it,” Burdett told me. “The biggest lesson I learned this year was if we really want something we can get it.” Engelstad took the opportunity to shoutout their largest program supporters, “We have such a good coach who always pushes us because she knows how far we can get,” she said. “We also have such a good program, a good community to support us, and an amazing athletic director. I would expect us to get to the same place or at least try our hardest to get there again next year.”
Smoldt sees the season as opportunity to see how far they have come, “We came further than any Sutherlin volleyball team has ever come,” she said. “In 2019, we set a milestone by getting Co-League champs with Cascade Christian, and we took fourth at state. This year, we broke the milestone we achieved and got second. We lose four seniors this year, but next year I believe that if we work hard enough and put in the time and effort, I can see us in the state tournament again.” Josie Vermillion puts a bow on the campaign, “In the end, never doubt how far a team can make it or go,” she said. “Always believe in yourself and how much you can improve. We have a great program at Sutherlin, and even though we’ll lose quite a bit, I’m excited to improve and grow with new teammates next season!”
Footnote: The header image was also from Sutherlin Sports (Facebook)