Senior Abigail Brown hits the ball during practice earlier this week. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The Philomath High School volleyball program turns the page this season with Denee Newton moving on to other career endeavors and Autumn Hilberg coming in with hopes of continuing what has been a winning tradition.

Not counting the abbreviated pandemic “season” of 2020-21, the Warriors have reached the state playoffs every year since 2014. Philomath will need to develop quickly on the court heading into this fall’s campaign with limited experience returning — six players that were major contributors to last year’s run to a third-place trophy at state were lost to graduation.

Among those who are back, 6-foot-3 Abigail Brown is now a senior and gives the Warriors significant height at the net. During this preseason, Hilberg has been working with her to contribute in new ways on the floor.

“We will probably see her set a lot this year and play right side, so when she’s in the front row, she’ll hit, and in the back row, she’ll set, which is something she hasn’t done in the past,” Hilberg said. “She’s been a hitter and then pass in the back row and defended or subbed out.”

Hilberg has seen Brown, who was an all-conference honorable mention choice last season, take on a leadership role.

“She’s really spearheaded the fact that we want to be a program and not just a varsity, a JV and a JV2 team,” Hilberg said. “She came to me and asked if we could do things together as a whole program.”

Another player back from last season is junior Ahnika Tryon, who will also see change by switching from the middle to the outside.

Ashleigh Brown, a 6-foot-1 sophomore, will likely be playing as the primary setter, the coach said. Swing player Lorelei Schell, a junior, is also in the mix at that position.

“We have three pretty good setters that we can go for,” Hilberg said. “We have two newcomers in the middle, so that’ll be development but they are athletic and they’ve worked really hard to earn that spot.”

Other seniors on the roster include libero Kori Galvan, defensive specialist Brooke Moade and libero Jeorgia Mast. Juniors Ava Theurer (right-side setter, middle blocker), Clara Stanley (outside hitter) and Madison Juhl (middle blocker), sophomores Madison Provance (outside hitter, defensive specialist), Hannah Bennett (defensive specialist, libero) and Zoee Howard (middle blocker, outside hitter), and freshman Shaylee May round out the varsity roster.

Hilberg sees strength in numbers.

“I think their biggest strength is just how they support each other … the work they’re putting in off the court to be a team,” Hilberg said. “They’re all athletes, some of them won state in basketball last year and track, and third in volleyball, and just putting them onto a volleyball court with that athleticism, it’s been easier than I thought.”

Hilberg said watching them get along on and off the court has been a plus.

“I never ask them to be best friends, I ask them to be professionals on the court — if they can do both, that makes them even better,” she said.

As far as an area where Hilberg sees the most need for improvement heading into the season, it basically comes down to experience in varsity games. Abigail Brown, Tryon and Galvan are the only players back with significant minutes, she said.

“We have four kids coming from club who played in the offseason, which is going to help a lot, I think, with just that experience of playing competitively throughout the winter,” Hilberg said.

Philomath’s first taste of competition came during an Aug. 25 jamboree at Sweet Home.

“Everybody got touches, they got to see the core and show their strengths with what they’ve been working on in practice,” Hilberg said. “We had a couple of girls jump-serving who have never done that before, so we’re trying new things … knowing it was OK to try new things and try to get better in a competitive environment rather than just practice.”

Overall, there are 34 students in the volleyball program — 23 of those freshmen or sophomores.

Autumn Hilberg succeeded Denee Newton as the PHS volleyball coach. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The varsity season begins Tuesday with a home doubleheader against Gladstone and Junction City. The conference season gets going on Sept. 20 at Cascade. Tournaments on the schedule include trips to Sisters and North Marion along with the Mount Hood Invite at Barlow and the Clearwater Classic at Bend.

“Cascade’s obviously going to be really good. I’ve seen a lot of their players through club and they’re a really, really good team,” Hilberg said. “Newport is going to be competitive this year — they have a new coach who has a very similar mentality as I do and she and I have talked a lot about just kind of what we’re trying to push in high school volleyball as well.”

Hilberg comes to Philomath with eight years of coaching at the club level and she works as an administrator at G3 Sports and Fitness in Corvallis. This will be her first season coaching at the varsity high school level.

“I’m enjoying Philomath and this group of kids here,” Hilberg said last week before a practice. “They work hard and having that club mentality, I expect them to work hard and they’ve done that.”

Hilberg’s background includes high school at Gervais and college work at Chemeketa Community College and Linn-Benton Community College before earning a degree at Western Oregon University.

Assistant coaches include Jordynn Slater, who will serve as the JV head coach, and Brittani Rebeiz, who will be in the role of JV2 coach. Former PHS volleyball standout Kaela Lindsey is helping until the end of September before she leaves for school. 

The former coach, Newton, led the Warriors program from 2016-21 and compiled an 80-48-1 record and five state playoff appearances — including third-place trophies in 2019 and 2021. Newton was recently named assistant principal at Meadow View, a K-8 school in Eugene.

Said Hilberg, “She left a good program and I’m excited to continue the tradition.”

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.