The Cougars will open the 3A tournament against Roosevelt Friday in Yakima
SILVERDALE — The current crop of Central Kitsap volleyball players were kindergartner’s or younger the last time the Cougars qualified for the state tournament.
With no ties to past state teams, the Cougars feel like it’s a new start to a promising future.
“We’re so excited, especially with the new school it’s like a new tradition,” said senior outside hitter Riley Knapp. “You look at Capital and they always go to state, they always play at state and I think that could be us. We could be one of those teams that people look at and (say) ‘Oh, they’re good.’ I think that’s what we’re striving for.”
The Cougars last team to qualify for state in 2006 came back to Silverdale with a fifth-place trophy. Knapp, who was named to the All-SSC second team Wednesday, isn’t satisfied with being one of the top 16 3A teams in the state.
“I want to place,” she said. “Especially like with the new school and like I said new traditions and everything, it’s kind of like let’s bring in a new culture and I think this would be really good for that.”
It was the Cougars late-season play that vaulted them into the position they’re in now. Central beat South Sound Conference opponents Peninsula and previously-unbeaten Capital to end the regular season with critical victories. The 4-1 win over Capital was a game-changer for the Cougars as it gave them the No. 3 seed into last week’s district tournament based on tiebreakers with Gig Harbor.
It turned out to be the best road to state for the Cougars.
“That was huge,” said second-year head coach Rebecca Arthur.
Central handled Bonney Lake 25-16, 25-14, 25-18, in its first match and then faced Stadium (who beat CK at district last year) in a winner-to-state match. The Cougars won in a thriller, 25-19, 28-30, 25-17, 25-21, 15-10.
Arthur, who was named the All-SSC coach of the year, credited assistant coach Katie Pasi with going out and scouting Bonney Lake and Stadium and figure out how the Cougars could best handle them.
“Coach Pasi has so much volleyball IQ it’s insane,” she said, adding they made some minor changes and that served them well at district.
Knapp said she and her teammates were so focused last Friday, and so determined to win, it felt like they were playing Division I volleyball.
“We were so into it,” she said. “Those are two games I’ll never forget.”
The relief and excitement were palpable for the players, the coaching staff and friends and family who were in Bonney Lake for the tournament.
“Beating Capital gave us the confidence so then we were just all pumped,” junior setter Keahi Sarono said. Sarono, who was named the All-SSC first team, this week. “It was unreal. When we won, I was just like ‘Wow! We’re actually going to state.”
Their season wasn’t an easy one.
Playing in the tough and balanced SSC, the Cougars had to play at their best every night. It didn’t help that senior Baylee Anderson, a hard-hitting outside hitter, was lost early in the season due to injury. Allie Baldridge, a sophomore, stepped in to fill the role.
“We had to adjust not having her and she had really hard hits,” Knapp said. “I kind of miss digging them in practice. But I think overall Allie has really stepped up a lot and she’s improved a lot, especially her swinging. She’s hitting better than I am.”
Sarono said she saw both Baldridge and Knapp step up their play.
“I felt like even in practice you could tell they were working really hard,” she said.
The early adversity went a long way in building a camaraderie within the Cougars as the team worked to improve, Arthur said.
“There’s been a lot of improvement from the early part of the season,” Arthur said, adding the addition of sophomores Tati Jones, right-side hitter, and libero/OH Cat Calma, and continuing to win was big.
She also touted the senior leadership of Knapp, Maggie Cole and Reegan Stark as impressive.
“Reegan and Riley have done a fantastic job and Maggie’s not very extroverted but she’s definitely a lead-by-example, she puts in the work,” Arthur said. “My seniors have been outstanding.”
Central (11-7) is heading to Yakima Thursday and will face Roosevelt (16-6, Metro League, Sea-King District runner-up) at 9:45 a.m. Friday in the first round. A win and CK will face the winner of the Stadium/Ferndale match at 5:15 p.m.
Due to their long absence Central will be an unknown to their opponents at state.
That’s OK with Knapp.
“I think we essentially have to make a statement, especially against Roosevelt,” she said. “It’s going to take the entire team focusing. … Against Capital everyone was on point and on fire so I think we just have to bring that.”
Arthur said they have a game plan for the Rough Riders.
“We have some ideas about them,” she said. “We tweaked a couple things this week and we’ll just go and compete. We’d like a win. We’ll have to work for every point at this level. No one’s going to give us anything.”
If things go well, the Cougars hope to remain in the winners’ bracket and play Saturday for a trophy.
“I really don’t want this season to end at all,” Knapp said. “I just want to make a statement when we get there.”