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Third-seeded Crater advances to the 5A state tournament with another straight-set win

Coming off a Midwest League campaign filled with nothing but straight-set hitting, the Crater volleyball team entered the Class 5A state playoffs with plenty of wind in its sails.

So much so that things looked a lot like the regular season on Saturday.

Behind another big performance from star outside hitters Kendra Bittle and Maddie Cocina, third-seeded Crater was able to shake off a slow start to win 25-17, 25-19, 25-10 over No. 14 Dallas in the opening round of the 5A state playoffs in Scenic Middle School in Central Point.

“We started off really slow, we had a little hitting and we weren’t getting our serves very well,” Crater head coach Leaf Jensen said. “Again, as always this season, we are just a mismatch. Dallas had a big, legitimate 6-foot-2 middle (Erin Eriksen), but I think our block got to her a little bit. She was just tipping all night, she didn’t really swing much, and our blockers did a good job of setting her up.”

With the win, the Comets (19-4) advanced to their first state tournament since 2018, where they will face sixth-seeded La Salle Prep (19-4) — which defeated Summit No. 11 by 25-22, 25-22, 25-23 on Saturday — in the quarterfinals at 3:15 p.m. Friday, with the semifinals scheduled for later that night in Forest Grove.

Four years ago, Crater was also seeded No. 3 in the 5A state tournament, but finished sixth.

Jensen, who coached the Comets in 2018 before stepping down, likes his team’s chances as they head north to Forest Grove.

“I feel confident, no question about it,” Jensen said. “Honestly, like I told somebody earlier this week, I’ve watched film of almost every team in the state and I’d rather watch their film than ours because I feel pretty good. We have the potential, we have the drive, we have the focus and we are peaking at the right time. We expect big things next week.”

Kocina finished with a team-best 15 kills, 15 digs and had a pair of aces and a block. Bittle wasn’t far behind with 13 kills, four digs and a pair of blocks.

Kate Stidham recorded 38 assists, 13 blocks, two aces and three blocks. Alexa Gugliotta added seven kills and three blocks.

Earlier in the week, the 6-foot-6 Beatle announced she had verbally committed to play collegiately at Corban University in Salem.

“The two of them had just six hitting errors all night and 28 kills,” said Jensen of Bittle and Cochina. “They were just burning. Kendra has so much power and when she lines up that ball — and we’ve been ramping up our offense — she’s just unstoppable. Maddie jumps so high and hits such sharp angles that this duo is just so tough. You dig for Kendra and then you have to be easy on Maddie because she can take it and turn it either way. They are just a handful that everyone has to deal with.”

That was evident from the start as Kocina and Bittle recorded kills to close out the first set.

Bittle struck again early in the second set when her powerful forehand into an open point put Crater up 5-3. From there, the Comets’ lead only grew as they extended it to 8-3 with five straight points. The Comets made it 14-9 thanks to a pair of great hits from junior libero Joslyhn Pope to keep the rally alive before Gugliotta’s layup finished the point.

With the third set tied at 6-all early, the Comets were able to put the Dragons (9-11) away for good, scoring 11 of the next 12 points to build a 17-7 lead.

“They were tipping, trying to get around our big block, and we were picking it all up,” Jensen said. “They just couldn’t get the ball down the stretch.”

Defense and serve reception were among the things Jensen wanted to see improve at the start of the season.

Now, as the Comets head into the 5A state tournament, the efforts of Pope — who finished with 10 digs — are leading to a defensive revival of sorts.

“When you have one guy playing that hard, it makes everybody else play hard because you don’t want to look lazy,” Jensen said of Pope. “It’s contagious and it was definitely our key — the balls don’t fall on the third of the court she covers, they just don’t. Her serve-receive was fantastic. We’re all just clicking at the right time, but Joslyhn’s playing was inspiring.”

Contact reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

PHOTO BY: LARRY STATUT The JRCrater High volleyball team celebrates during the game against Dallas at the Scenic Middle School Gym on Saturday.

PHOTO BY: LARRY STOUT JRCrater High’s Kendra Bittle tries to drive the ball past Dallas defenders at the Scenic Middle School Gym on Saturday.

PHOTO BY: LARRY STOUT JRCrater High’s Kate Stidham (2) puts the ball between teammates Lani Snow (13) and Kendra Bittle (4) at the Scenic Middle School Gym on Saturday.

PHOTO BY: LARRY STATUT JRCrater High’s Madison Cocina watches her spiked ball over the net during the game against Dallas at the Scenic Middle School Gym on Saturday.

PHOTO BY: LARRY STOUT JRCrater High’s Kate Stidham (2) and Alexa Gugliotta try to block Dallas High’s Brooke Van Wel at the Scenic Middle School Gym on Saturday.

PHOTO BY: LARRY STUTT JRCrater High’s Kate Stidham puts the ball in front of Dallas linebacker teammate Madison Cocina at the Scenic Middle School Gym on Saturday.

PHOTO BY: LARRY STUTT JRCrater High’s Madison Cocina tries to drive the ball past Dallas defenders at the Scenic Middle School Gym on Saturday.

PHOTO BY: LARRY STOUT JRCrater High’s Danica Huntoon looks to hit the ball between Dallas defenders Olivia Hale (7) and Hannah Callaway (8), with the Crater bench in the background, at the Scenic Middle School Gym on Saturday.

PHOTO BY: LARRY STOUT JRCrater High’s Kate Stidham puts the ball between Dallas defenders and teammate Lani Snow at the Scenic Middle School Gym on Saturday.

PHOTO BY: LARRY STATUT JRCrater High’s Madison Cocina hits the ball against Dallas at the Scenic Middle School Gym on Saturday.

PHOTO BY: LARRY STOUT JRCrater High’s Alexa Gugliotta (10) looks to slam the ball past Dallas defenders as teammates look on at the Scenic Middle School Gym on Saturday.

PHOTO BY: LARRY STATUT JRCrater High’s Madison Cocina hits the ball against Dallas at the Scenic Middle School Gym on Saturday.

PHOTO BY: LARRY STOUT JRCrater High’s Danica Huntoon tries to drive the ball past Dallas defenders as teammates look on at the Scenic Middle School Gym on Saturday.

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