PHILOMATH — Sweet Home head coach Mary Hutchins wanted her team to approach Tuesday night like it was a state playoff match.
Hutchins knew her Huskies squad was entering a tough environment in a road matchup with Philomath, and she emphasized to her players that it was important to learn from these situations.
“I think that just playing those tough games where you have to push through, where you're tied or the score is close, where you have to be mentally tough and play those tough points, that just prepares you,” Hutchins said. “I told them, ‘You need to think that you’re at state. What are you going to do to push through and widen that score gap?’”
The Huskies (6-0, 2-0) took those words to heart and delivered a gutsy performance as they topped the Warriors (3-2, 1-1) in straight sets 25-18, 25-17, 25-9. It was a statement win early in Oregon West Conference play for a Sweet Home squad that returns plenty of key figures from last year’s state semifinals run.
That tournament success happened a year earlier than many expected it to since the Huskies were so young last season, but it left the returning Sweet Home players with invaluable experience. A tough league schedule this fall could help them prepare for another long postseason journey.
“Our goal last year was always to make it to the final eight in state, we were really young,” Hutchins said. “I don’t think a lot of people saw that coming. We had possibilities, but we were really young. We still have a lot of juniors and sophomores on the team and we have three seniors. I guess we’re maturing. Our goal is to get there, but we know we have a lot of volleyball ahead and a lot of work to do.”
Each time Philomath tried to make a run — or even gain control of a set — Sweet Home had an answer. The Huskies opened up with a 9-2 run in the first set and fought off a later Philomath charge. The Warriors brought it back to 21-16 and forced a Sweet Home time out, but the Huskies got two consecutive kills from Jamie Seward and an ace from Teja Abbott before closing out the set thanks to a Philomath service error.
In the second set, the Huskies got off to a similarly strong start, but watched Philomath chip away at the lead once again. The Warriors drew as close as 15-12 at one point and later fought back to 21-16. But Sweet Home composed itself and got four consecutive kills from junior Shelbey Nichol before finally winning the set on another Philomath service error.
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In the third set, Philomath battled its way to 7-7 before the Huskies slammed the door shut and put the match out of reach. Sweet Home scored eight consecutive points to make it 15-7, and finished out the match on a 7-0 scoring run to close out the evening on a strong note.
Nichol finished with 11 kills for Sweet Home and Joelle Berger had six kills and five assists for the Warriors.
“This is a big win for us,” Hutchins said. “They are one of the strongest teams, I feel like, in our league. They are very tall and we are quite a bit smaller matching up size-for-size. We were excited to play them because it’s a big game for our league.”
The Warriors entered the season as the No. 6-ranked team in the OSAA coaches poll, but Philomath head coach Denee Newton pointed to one major reason that Sweet Home presented such a tough challenge on Thursday.
“Swagger. They don’t care who is on the other side of the net and they’re fearless,” Newton said. “That makes them solid. … I think they play with total confidence and are never worried.”
Despite the lopsided result, Newton believes her team can use Tuesday as a building experience. The Warriors worked almost exclusively on serving and receiving early in the season, and only began working on blocking and hitting until last week in order to address their weaknesses. Now she wants to see her team carry itself with the same type of confidence as the Huskies.
“We have a voice in our heads right now, like, ‘Oh no, it’s Sweet Home,” Newton said. “And it gets us in trouble because then we don’t hit at them. We had 16 kills as a team and all of my front row players can hit. But they need just enough ego to balance out the humility they have and then I think we’ll be the team to beat.”