ST. PAUL — The St. Paul volleyball team's stunning 2016 season, which included regular season Tri-River Conference and district tournament titles, ended on a sour note with back-to-back losses at the Class 2A state championship tournament.
The Bucks, however, have been steadfastly positive ever since and with a fruitful offseason behind them, coach Lesli Hiller's team is brimming with confidence heading into the 2017 campaign.
"We're having fun," senior Haley Scott said. "We're staying focused, but everyone is just in a really good mood coming to practice and wanting to work hard. It's so cool."
That attitude compliments the team's "Just Bee" motto, which was put forth by Hiller to emphasize cooperation in service of a greater goal and utilizes the bee as the graphic element on the team T-shirt. Hiller had each of her five seniors — Alexis Goughnour, Marley Martinez, Logan Robinson, Haley Scott and Presley Smith — pick an adjective for the team to embody, so this year the Bucks are shooting to just be amazing, confident, positive, kind and unstoppable.
"From our perspective, we're done with wanting and wishing to achieve our goals," Smith said. "We're just going to do it and be what we want to be."
St. Paul certainly has good reason to be optimistic about the upcoming season. For one, the Bucks lost just one regular contributor from last year's squad to graduation.
Outside hitter Elizabeth Brentano was a force on both sides of the net a year ago and will be missed, but the Bucks will still have depth and experience at every position.
"I tell my teams all the time that if we took half of them and had another team in league, they would do just as well," Hiller said. "It's just very good right now as far as the depth of the bench."
Sophomore Isabelle Wyss will help fill Brentano's shoes after getting a lot of court time last year. Senior Logan Robinson will lead a group of outside and right side hitters that will include juniors Hailey Farrell and Megan Tuck, sophomore Mercedes Smith and freshman Jordan Caldwell.
Robinson and fellow senior Marley Martinez will serve as captains for the second consecutive season, but Martinez may share setting duties with sophomore Karlee Southerland.
St. Paul also features two strong middles in Scott and sophomore Erin Counts, with the back row also in good hands with libero Emma Connor, defensive specialist Presley Smith, Goughnour and the deep group of well-rounded hitters.
"We've seen a lot of improvement from the players that were starters last year, which is nice to see because sometimes kids get to that starting spot and they stagnate," Hiller said. "But all these kids keep improving in all areas. Logan did really well last year and I look to see amazing things from her this year."
The Bucks began working to build unity at a spring tournament in Anaheim, Calif., then also had a productive summer in the Blanchet Catholic Summer league and most recently at team camp in Seaside earlier this month.
Scott recalled that the team struggled with some negativity at last year's team camp, but said the team has realized there is no room for that attitude this year.
"There was a lot of positivity," Smith added. "The whole camp is really based off a positive attitude, so we were talking to the other girls there, making friends, getting out of our comfort zone and I think that energy off the court brought energy on the court."
The team is focusing a lot of its time on strengthening the defense and Hiller said she believes the mental strides the team has made will prove especially valuable on that side of the ball.
"I think they just know each other really well, which is so huge in volleyball, to know who's going to be behind you, who's going to take that pass and that you can trust that they're going to be there, so you can stay in your own position and cover your area," Hiller said. "They're just playing really well in that respect."
Offensively, the team has worked on being more disciplined in its hitting and with so much depth, it may be able to run a 6-2 formation instead of the 5-1 it did a year ago.
"This year we've been really working on not just getting up there and hitting," Scott said. "Coach is having us work on 'yellow light,' where you need to think before you swing, so it's helped us in our game."
Robinson added that the team will be better prepared to handle pressure situations after so many players got court time at the state tournament last year. But for now, they're just itching for some competition. The Bucks will participate in a league jamboree at Western Mennonite Thursday before playing their annual alumni game Aug. 31 and opening the season Sept. 5 at Santiam.
"Most of the girls on this team have been playing together on the same team since sixth and seventh grade," Smith said. "Coach Hiller coached us in club volleyball and it was all the same team, so we've really been waiting for this season for the past five years."