The goal is to earn a trip to Forest Grove, the host site of the Nov. 2-3 Class 4A state volleyball tournament. Although the Warriors will finish no higher than third in the Oregon West Conference, they have a realistic chance at reserving a school bus for the trip northward.
First, Philomath must avoid slipping up against the bottom two teams in the league next week to end the regular season. The Warriors would then very likely host a play-in match and if a victory could be secured, they would advance to the first round of the state playoffs with an opportunity to become one of the final eight schools that compete in the tournament.
Joelle Berger, Philomath's hard-hitting 6-foot-1 junior, believes the team has seen progress leading up to season's stretch run.
"Our league's definitely gotten tougher but we've grown a lot just from like a few weeks ago," Berger said after Philomath dropped a Monday match at home to Sisters, 25-22, 25-17, 36-34. "If we keep working hard in practice, we can go to state."
The Warriors have not been able to do much against the top two teams in the Oregon West, a league that became significantly more challenging with the realignment additions of Sweet Home and Sisters prior to this season. Those two schools will square off for the conference title next week.
"Compared to the last time we played them, we did a lot better," Berger said about the Sisters match. "A lot of the little things we've been working on have been showing. The team's just been growing and just working hard."
Philomath (16-9 overall, 6-4 Oregon West) appeared to have the ability to stick with an opponent like Sisters but little mistakes piled up. The Outlaws used a combination of big hitting with timely and well-placed dinks over Philomath's blockers in the win.
"What we were noticing with our stats against our top opponents is we're beating them in the serve-receive game and we're beating them in the serve game, which are the two most important parts of the game to win," PHS coach Denee Newton said. "But then our offense is slow and we get in trouble and we hesitate. It's the No. 1 thing right now that we're focusing on."
The hesitation factor becomes more visible against the really good teams and Newton knows the team needs to clean up that important factor to reach those postseason goals.
"Our serve-receive is dialed in a lot of the time and then on offense, we don't swing," she said. "We do swing sometimes but in crucial moments when we're a little bit worried and maybe we're behind, we stop swinging and we throw things that they hit back at us hard. And it's preventing us from peaking against these teams that we can beat if we can only hit it back as hard or harder."
The Warriors showed flashes of the game it wants to play in the match against Sisters. In the opening set, Philomath fought back from a 5-0 deficit to take an 11-10 lead. The two teams battled back and forth with the lead changing hands a few more times before the Outlaws finished the set with an 8-4 run.
Sisters had another good start to the second set with an 11-1 stretch and the Warriors could never climb out of that deep hole. Those Sisters dinks caused a few issues by leading to key points that killed Philomath's attempts to build momentum.
"That got us in trouble tonight -- the tip to the 2 position," Newton said. "One of our struggles is defensively, especially in the right-back defense, our setter's thinking about setting and sometimes we don't see those things that we should because we're thinking about what we're about to do.
"Sometimes we stare at the ball and don't look at our hand and we're way back, too far back, and it's too late," she added. "They probably scored five points on us on those tips."
Philomath appeared to have solved some issues in the third set. The score remained close until the Warriors went on a 7-2 run to take a 23-18 lead. During that stretch, Berger had four kills, Emma Pankalla and Ashley Matthews had key hits and Pankalla served an ace.
But the Warriors lost the edge and Sisters rallied to eventually take a 25-24 lead with an opportunity to win the match on serve. Pankalla's block tied it at 25, however, to set up a marathon battle that ultimately ended with Sisters winning, 36-34.
Philomath had set point on two occasions but couldn't finish. On the other end, the Warriors stayed alive with Sisters getting the score to match point eight times, coming through on the final opportunity on a PHS hit into the net.
"We've never gone that long before," Berger said about the third set. "We were just very intense. We weren't really frantic, we were just playing and it went up to that."
Newton said the team experienced the same late-set letdown in its last meeting against Sweet Home. The Warriors also let a 23-18 lead slip away in that one.
Against the Outlaws, Berger finished with 15 kills and Pankalla had 12. Sage Kramer had a major presence at the net with nine blocks. Ella Skinkis had 36 assists and Lindsey Luke had a team-high 22 digs.
The team now has the rest of the week to try to work on issues in practice.
"They have a goal to make that state tournament," Newton said. "We have some smaller goals that we have to achieve first. We have to overcome the hesitation."
Sisters 3, Philomath 0
Monday at Philomath
SISTERS (15-5, 9-1) 25 25 36
PHILOMATH (16-9, 6-4) 22 17 34
Kills—Joelle Berger 15, Emma Pankalla 12. Service Points—Claire Skinkis 9, Ella Skinkis 9. Aces—Emma Pankalla 2. Blocks—Sage Kramer 9, Ashley Matthews 5. Assists—Ella Skinkis 36. Digs—Lindsey Luke 22, Emma Pankalla 15, Claire Skinkis 13.
Philomath 2, Sisters 0
Monday at Philomath
SISTERS 19 19
PHILOMATH 25 25
Team notes: The JV team improved to 9-5 on the season. … JV coach Shelly Brown said the team played a consistent match with no slumps against the Outlaws. … The Warriors play Oct. 15 at home against Newport.
Junior Varsity II
Sisters 2, Philomath 0
Monday at Philomath
SISTERS 25 25
PHILOMATH 13 11
Team notes: The Warriors’ JVII squad went to 6-6. … Philomath played the match with only six players available. ... The team plays Oct. 15 at home against Newport.