In the fall, they played for four different high schools. In previous club seasons, they played for different organizations.
This year, a dozen of the top girls volleyball players in Central Oregon did something unusual: They pooled their talents to form a single elite club team.
And the results have been spectacular. Maybe even unprecedented.
Last month, the Rimrock/Oregon Volleyball Academy 18 National team placed second at the Columbia Empire regional tournament and earned a bid to the USA Volleyball Girls' Junior National Championships age-group tournament this summer in Atlanta.
Team head coach Joel Kent, who has been involved in the Central Oregon club volleyball scene since 1998, believes the accomplishment to be a first for any club team in the region.
The squad was Kent's brainchild. This past fall, he went to Rosie Honl, the director of Prineville-based Rimrock Volleyball Club, and Turner Waskom, director of the Bend-based Oregon Volleyball Academy, with an idea. He suggested holding open tryouts to field the best team possible made up of players from all over the area, and the players who did not make the select team could continue to play for their own clubs.
“We have a great base of volleyball, very competitive, and if we're working together to bring the best coaching that's possible, the best opportunities, everybody benefits,” Kent explains.
Honl and Waskom supported the idea, and tryouts were conducted this past fall after the high school season ended.
The final roster was a blend of players who represent four of Central Oregon's high school superpowers (and came from several different clubs). Four girls from Crook County High School in Prineville made the team, as did three each from Summit and Mountain View high schools in Bend and two from Sisters High School.
Kent says he recognizes that — on a sports landscape where youth clubs often compete with each other for talent — such an arrangement is uncommon, adding that teams from the Portland area have asked him how he did it.
“I don't know how to describe it,” Kent says. “It's recognizing the common good and sacrificing the individual. And that sounds very philosophical, but for that club sport, the Central Oregon community did that, and it is unusual.”
Despite coming from different backgrounds, the chosen players jelled.
“Our team is so close,” claims Karlee Markham, a senior at Mountain View High and a defensive specialist/libero. “We're like sisters, best friends. Everybody gets along. I've never actually seen a team that bonds like we do.”
Not only are the players friends and teammates, but they push each other to become more skilled as well.
“We're all really good in our specific positions, and so playing with everyone together just makes us all better,” explains Hannah Harrer, a junior outside hitter/middle blocker who attends Sisters High. “And our practices are really high-level because we compete with each other for spots, stats, everything.”
That chemistry and intensity may well have helped the team qualify for nationals. To make the tournament, club teams from across the country must earn bids based on their results at selected tournaments. If a team earns a bid, it is invited to play in the tournament.
Rimrock/OVA's journey to nationals turned into a bit of a quest. Originally, the team targeted a bid for the national tournament's 18-and-under Open Division at a Pacific Northwest qualifier in late March. But it finished ninth there, not high enough.
The next opportunity came at the regional tournament, which was held in Corvallis in mid-April and included teams from Oregon and southwest Washington. The winner would earn a bid to the national tournament's 18-and-under National Division.
Again, Rimrock/OVA fell just short, taking second to a Portland-area club. But that team decided to decline the bid, which was then passed to Rimrock/OVA.
“It was so exciting,” Harrer says of landing the invitation to nationals. “I couldn't believe it.”
Kent says the team will fundraise to partially offset the cost of the trip, which was not budgeted.
“I don't even talk about (qualifying for nationals) to the kids at the beginning of the season because it's so improbable,” he explains.
The national tournament will give the Rimrock/OVA players the opportunity to measure themselves against other top-notch teams and play in front of dozens of college coaches. Kent says he expects his squad to be seeded somewhere in the middle of the 48-team field, and he hopes for a top-10 finish.
“You give them the attitude that they can beat anyone if they control the ball on their side, and then you hope for some good bounces,” he says.
No matter the outcome, being on the squad has given the Rimrock/OVA players a wealth of opportunities.
“I was just hoping to get to play at a high competitive level, really, and I've gotten so much more,” says Gabby Crowell, a junior outside hitter who attends Summit High. “Getting to go to Georgia for nationals is more than I ever expected.”