A strong returning corps and freshmen that are filling the gaps left by departed players have kept the Linn-Benton Community College volleyball team believing in a continued high set of expectations.
LB has made the Northwest Athletic Conference tournament in 14 straight seasons — including a 3-2 record there last year — and doesn’t want to see that streak end.
With NWAC Southern Region play starting next week, the Roadrunners are feeling as though they’re turning a corner.
Coach Jayme Frazier said she feels good about the progress her team has made in its first 17 matches and three weeks of the schedule.
“Just turning it up a notch,” Frazier said. “Before it was focusing on skill and now it’s a little bit more strategy as we get rid of those unforced errors.”
Sophomores Maddie Norris, a Lebanon High alum, and Ellie Weber have seen their roles increase as they now share the setting duties in a 6-2 system.
Both are playing all-around games this fall after setting and hitting behind two-time two-year collegiate All-American Montanna Gubrud (now at Oregon State) in 2017.
“I feel like Ellie and I work together really well. What I lack she picks up, what she lacks I pick up,” Norris said. “It’s a lot mentally, but it’s a good mental challenge. It’s a lot to think about, because you make that transition from setting to hitting. We all know our jobs and know where we fit.”
The Roadrunners also return sophomore middle blockers Grace Phillips, a first-team all-region selection last year, and Jenaya Wright.
The team has strong local flavor. In addition to Norris, the 12-player all-Oregon roster includes sophomore libero Kya Knuth (Lebanon), freshmen outside hitters Mitra Aflatooni (Crescent Valley) and Ally Tow (Sweet Home) and freshman defensive specialist Daija Smith (Scio).
Knuth, who played both libero and defensive specialist last year, was second in 2017 sets played among the returners behind Phillips.
Aflatooni, Knuth, Norris and Tow have all played in 55 of the team’s 56 sets so far. Smith, in a reserve role, has played in 18.
Phillips leads the team in solo blocks, block assists and hitting percentage.
Norris is first in aces, second in block assists and third in digs. Tow is second in aces and digs and Knuth is first in digs.
Frazier said she’s feeling better about the depth of her team, one she says is small but has taken on the charge of playing multiple positions. Phillips, at 6-foot-1 is the only player on the roster listed taller than 6 feet.
Frazier feels good about having bench players that can contribute defensively and that the team’s outside hitters (Aflatooni, Tow and sophomore McKya Filley) are hitting both right and left.
The Roadrunners improved to 11-6 for the season Tuesday with a three-set home win against Redwoods. Set scores were 25-11, 25-7, 25-9.
Norris had 17 assists, three kills, four service aces, three digs and two block assists and Tow 12 kills and nine digs.
LB opens NWAC South Region play Sept. 19 at home against Chemeketa, the defending NWAC champion. The Roadrunners defeated the Storm in four sets at the Spokane tournament last Saturday.
LB opened the season with a 5-1 record at the NWAC Festival in Springfield.
Phillips has been named the regional offensive player of the week two times in the first three weeks, while Norris and Weber have shared regional setter of the week honors twice. Knuth was named to the all-tournament team in Spokane, where the Roadrunners were 3-2.
Linn-Benton hosts Pierce in another nonleague match before taking a week off in preparation for Chemeketa and the South Region opener.
“You can tell we’re improving so much. Just our energy on the court, too, it’s awesome to see the team coming together as one and becoming one cohesive unit,” Phillips said. “Our serve-receive is great, which is just so important and puts us back in the system so often. Also having strong outsides and middles who can work constantly at the same time is a plus.”