PHS senior co-captain Abigail Brown goes for the kill against the Cottage Grove defense. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath High School’s volleyball team is looking for a repeat of last season.

With a straight-set victory over Cottage Grove on Tuesday night, the Warriors played their way into the Class 4A state playoffs and will make a six-hour trip to Baker for a first-round match on Saturday. Philomath enters the playoffs as the No. 12 seed.

“We were in this position last year — 13th going to state,” Philomath senior and co-captain Abigail Brown said after the 25-17, 25-12, 25-18 victory. “I’m excited to see how it plays out again,” 

Last year in that No. 13 position, the Warriors pulled off road wins over Mazama and Baker in a memorable run to 4A’s final four in Corvallis. Philomath lost in five sets to eventual runner-up Sisters in the semifinals before beating Valley Catholic for the third-place trophy in what would be Denee Newton’s last match as head coach.

The play-in match on Tuesday night against Cottage Grove was on paper a mismatch heading in. The Lions (4-18) had lost to the Warriors twice earlier this season on successive weekends at tournaments. With that track record of success against the opponent, Philomath (16-8) needed to stave off any thoughts that they had won the match before the two teams even took the floor.

“It could’ve been easy to look past them,” PHS coach Autumn Hilberg said. “They were really close matches and they shouldn’t have been close matches because we tried to look past them. And their No. 9 (senior Blakely Herbert) is really good and she didn’t play the last few times. So we weren’t quite ready for her.”

PHS junior Mdison Juhl had four of the team’s seven blocks. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath neutralized Herbert’s effectiveness, however. “We focused on their best player and I thought we did that really well,” Hilberg said.

Brown admitted that there were some nerves going up against the Lions with hopes that the Warriors wouldn’t look past them.

“It’s one of those things where you go into it and you’re hoping that your teammates aren’t thinking, ‘oh, we already beat them.’ But we kinda all have that mentality of like, ‘we don’t want this to be our last game.’ So I think that was good,” Brown said.

Philomath entered the play-in match after falling in straight sets at Stayton last week — a team the Warriors had swept just 2-1/2 weeks earlier. But Hilberg said her squad put the loss in the past and performed like it has all season.

“It wasn’t a surprise that they came out like this; you’re going to have off games,” Hilberg said. “So we just forgot about it … that can be hard to do for high school girls but they did it. They played their game … just kept fighting.”

Brown said she believes the loss at Stayton was just a mental thing, as she put it.

“It can be hard for our team to come back from that but I think tonight, we really pulled together,” she said. “Everybody stepped up and played their positions really well. And we were scrappy, we were hustling and I think it really showed.”

PHS freshman Shaylee May goes high to hit the ball vs. Cottage Grove (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath had long scoring runs in each of the three sets to pull away. In the first, the Warriors trailed 3-2 early on but scored seven straight points to take control. After a sideout, PHS senior co-captain Kori Galvan served six straight points — the first being an ace that gave the Warriors their first lead at 4-3.

The Lions got back to within 10-8 but Philomath steadily pulled away. The Warriors went on another 6-0 run to turn a 16-11 lead into a 22-11 advantage. PHS junior Ahnika Tryon was at the service line and during the run, junior Madison Juhl had an ace block and freshman Shaylee May had a kill. PHS closed it out on another May kill followed by a Cottage Grove back-row miscue on the 25th point.

In the second set, it was much the same. The Lions led 2-1 very early before Philomath took the lead — and for good. Leading 5-3, the Warriors scored eight straight points to create a cushion from which Cottage Grove could not recover. Juhl got a sideout with a block and then the Warriors scored seven straight with Galvan serving, Brown hitting and the Lions struggling with hitting and passing.

On the final point of the second set, Galvan made an impressive save near the back line to get the ball over with Cottage Grove then hitting into the net.

The most challenging set of the night came in the third with Philomath and Cottage Grove exchanging the lead several times. The Warriors trailed 16-15 before finally going on a run to pull away. After the Lions committed an unforced error to tie the score, Brown served for eight straight to reach match point. Cottage Grove ended the run and gained serve but a hit landed out and Philomath could celebrate.

May and Brown each had eight kills to lead Philomath in the hitting department. Brown also had a team-high five aces. At the net, Juhl finished with four blocks and on defense, Galvan had 23 digs. Sophomore setter Ashleigh Brown finished with 19 assists.

The Warriors will need to make the long journey to Baker for the second straight season.

“It’ll be a long day of travel on Friday … but that’s how 4A is, so we’ve gotten used to it by now,” Hilberg said.

The first-year PHS coach plans to have her team prepared for what they’ll see against the Bulldogs.

“It’s my favorite part of coaching — I love watching film and picking apart another team,” Hilberg said.

The winner of Saturday’s match — the start time was not immediately announced — will advance to the 4A tournament on Nov. 4-5 at Springfield High School for a quarterfinal matchup against the winner of Hidden Valley vs. Tillamook. The top four seeds heading in are Marshfield, Cascade, The Dalles and Tillamook.

Brad Fuqua

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.