Even as the Baker volleyball team’s breakthrough season was slouching toward its end Tuesday night, Nov. 2 in the Baker gym, coach Ali Abrego had a glimpse of the Bulldogs’ future.
And she only had to look across the net.
There, a senior-laden Philomath team was about to conclude a 3-0 sweep of Baker in a Class 4A quarterfinal playoff match.
But even as Abrego and the Bulldogs lament the conclusion of a season where they compiled a 16-7 record, claimed the Greater Oregon League title and advanced to the final eight, they know that next year they will have the experience that the Warriors brought to the Baker gym.
The Bulldogs had only one senior — co-captain Lacy Churchfield.
“She’ll be a hard one to replace,” Abrego said after Philomath had finished its 26-24, 25-13, 25-18 win before a large crowd in the BHS gym. “We have a lot of room for growth.”
Abrego said Baker’s relative lack of playoff experience — only Churchfield and junior Jozie Ramos were on the roster of the 2019 team that lost a first-round playoff match at Junction City — showed early against Philomath.
Ashlynn Barron, one of the Warriors’ senior leaders, had three strong serves, one of them an ace, to give Philomath a quick 3-0 lead in the first set.
The Warriors extended the lead to 7-3, led by three kills from another senior, Sage Kramer, whose powerful swings tested Baker’s defense throughout the match.
Philomath extended its lead to 10-5, but after Abrego called a timeout, the Bulldogs rallied.
Consecutive kills from Ramos and fellow junior Rylee Elms cut the lead to 10-7.
After a Philomath timeout the Warriors forged ahead 19-15, but Baker responded with kills from junior Makenzie Flanagan and Churchfield to cut the lead to 19-18.
The latter part of the set was tense, with ties at 21, 22 and 23.
A Philomath hitting error gave Baker a set point at 24-23, but the Warriors then scored three straight, including a kill by Kramer, to take the set, 26-24.
Abrego said she was gratified to see her young team shrug off the difficult start and quickly adjust to the Warriors’ high level of play.
“It was stage fright, almost,” she said. “But I felt really good about how we came back from a deficit instead of just rolling over.”
Philomath dominated the second set, leading 10-3 early.
Abrego called timeout with the Warriors leading 16-5, and although Baker had a mini rally to get within 10 points at 23-13, Philomath finished off the set.
The final set was much more competitive, with ties at 3, 6 and 8.
After Philomath led 15-12, Ramos served an ace to get Baker to within 17-16.
Flanagan had a kill to cut the lead to 18-17, but the Bulldogs would get no closer.
Philomath scored seven of the last eight points to end the match and advance to a semifinal match Friday night, Nov. 5 at Corvallis High School.
Abrego said Baker showed its mettle with its performance in the third set.
“It was good to see them come back in the third set and compete,” she said.
Looking ahead to 2022, Abrego is excited about Baker’s potential. In addition to its core of junior leaders and sophomore libero Ryann Paulsen, the Bulldogs had three freshmen play against Philomath — Ashlyn Dalton, Sofia Hanson and Taylor Churchfield.
“We had a lot of potential coming into this season,” Abrego said. “With a young team you either rise to the occasion or you don’t, and I think we did a really good job representing our league and getting to the top eight.”
Abrego believes the loss to a veteran team such as Philomath could be an experience that Bulldogs look back on, in future seasons, as an important stop, albeit a disappointing one, on the progression of the program.
“It’s a reference point, something we can reflect back on,” Abrego said.