Senior student manager Ashley Hamblin reacts after serving for an ace during a special appearance on Senior Night. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Leading 21-14 in the second set of Thursday night’s volleyball match against visiting North Marion, the gymnasium erupted with loud cheers when No. 5 checked in and ran toward the back line to get ready to serve.

Moments later, the cheers got even louder when she served an ace.

On this evening, No. 5 happened to be senior student manager Ashley Hamblin. The special appearance in a varsity uniform and on the floor coincided with the team’s Senior Night.

“We love her, she’s awesome,” PHS senior Abigail Brown said. “She comes in with enthusiasm every day so it was good to see her play.”

Philomath won the match in straight sets, 25-14, 25-18 and 25-17 to stay in the hunt for second place in the Oregon West Conference standings.

Warriors coach Autumn Hilberg said Hamblin’s senior teammates asked if she would consider putting her in the match. The coach said she immediately agreed.

“She’s put in a lot of work and she’s been a part of this program since Day 1 when they all started as freshmen,” Hilberg said. “She made a tough decision to come back as manager and work hard and she earned her playing time tonight, too — she served well, she passed well, she did a good job.”

Senior Abigail Brown goes for a kill against the Huskies during Thursday’s night victory. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Hamblin seemed to have a smile on her face the majority of the time during her minutes in the match — she also made an appearance in the third set. Even on an unsuccessful dig attempt, Hamblin smiled up at her teammates from the floor and was obviously just having fun playing.

Said Hilberg, “You can tell everyone loves her … she’s just a spark plug.”

As for the match, both Brown and Hilberg were thinking along the same lines about the performance against North Marion — both mentioned that Philomath lacked focus.

“I think we kinda played down tonight … It’s tough playing teams like that,” said Brown, who had a team-high 15 kills. “But I think overall, practices are looking good, people are hitting hard and moving faster. I think we’re looking promising for making the playoffs so I’m pretty excited.”

Hilberg said she knows the team can play significantly better based on previous efforts against tougher opponents.

“The mental focus will be fine,” she said. “We have Sweet Home here on Tuesday and we lost to them last time. I expect us to play a lot tougher.”

PHS junior Madison Juhl hits over the North Marion defense. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath trails Sweet Home by one game in the league standings and a win over the Huskies would force at least a tie for the runner-up spot behind Cascade, who remains unbeaten in the Oregon West. Sweet Home defeated Philomath in four sets on Sept. 29.

Brown said the team needs to put together a good mental game to be able to compete against the Huskies.

“At this point, we have the skill, we have the knowledge,” Brown said. “We just have to go out and play mentally strong and keep our energy high and keep our attitudes up.”

After the home appearance against Sweet Home, the Warriors will wrap up the regular season portion of their schedule Oct. 20 at Stayton.

“We swept them the last time but I think they’re a tougher team than the way they played us,” Hilberg said. “And then, I’m pushing playoffs and I think that’s going to happen.”

The league champion will earn an automatic berth in the 4A playoff field and Cascade has that spot nailed down. Eight teams will go directly into the playoffs — the six league champions and two runners-up. Philomath will be hard pressed to slip into one of those other two spots with the Warriors currently at No. 12. If the season had ended Thursday, the two at-large berths would go to Henley and Crook County.

Sophomore Ashleigh Brown sets the ball for her teammate and sister, Abigail Brown (background). (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The more likely scenario would see Philomath hosting a play-in match with the winner advancing into the 4A playoffs.

Sophomore Ashleigh Brown continued her habit of serving well and finished with five aces against the Huskies. The team’s primary setter, she also had 30 assists. Junior middle blocker Madison Juhl had three of the team’s four blocks. Senior Kori Galvan finished with 13 digs to lead the team in that statistical category.

Four seniors were recognized during pregame warmups — Brown, Galvan, Brooke Moade and Hamblin.

“They made my first year very special,” Hilberg said of the seniors. “They all contribute something different to the team and they’re completely different humans. But they’ve been great leaders … I’m just so thankful for the respect they’ve shown me. Even through the tough times, they didn’t get down and said ‘you’re the coach, we respect you.’ They lead the underclassmen in that way and I’m very grateful for that — all four of them.”

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.