It’s hard not to notice all the state championship banners hanging inside Northwest Christian High School’s gymnasium.
One wall in particular features nothing but banners stretching from one end to the next. The greatness of the school’s powerhouse running programs are on full display.
The lion’s share of the hardware, however, belongs to the girls cross country team. Nine state championship banners, ranging from the first title in 2006 until the most recent in 2014, call the wall home.
“Cross country is definitely a big thing at this school,” said Northwest Christian volleyball coach Jack Lizee. “Everything else takes a backseat.”
Juniors Samantha Johnson and Abbie VanMarter are looking to change all that. The two figure there’s plenty of room in the gym’s rafters to add a volleyball banner or two over the next few years.
“Everything here is about running,” VanMarter said. “You walk down the hallway and the runners are always recruiting people to come out and join the team. We want to get volleyball here up to that standard.”
A return to the state tournament is the first goal for the duo in making that happen, and the Navigators are well on their way to accomplishing that after opening the year by sweeping their first four opponents in straight sets.
“We’re just trying to communicate as much as we can out there. We have to because we’re all new to each other on the team. We don’t know each very well,” Johnson said. “This is basically a brand new team. We had a whole different team last year.”
The early success for Northwest Christian is even more impressive considering the fact that the Navigators return just three players from last year’s squad, losing one senior to graduation and the rest to the school’s running start program.
Lizee has turned to Johnson, a middle, and VanMarter, an outside hitter, to overcome the greenness of the squad.
“When they were freshmen we knew they were going to be really nice players for us. They both played varsity last year and we knew we were going to rely on them a lot this season,” Lizee said. “That’s why I made them co-captains. This is the first year I’ve ever done that. Normally we just have one captain, but these girls both need to be leaders on this team. We ask a lot out of them because we have so much youth and we know they’ll do a great job leading them, and that’s what they’ve been doing.”
In the Navigators’ second match this season, a road contest against Rainier, Johnson registered a remarkable 14 serving aces, posting 19 consecutive serves during one set.
“I just had a lot of adrenaline,” Johnson said about her feelings while stringing together the high number of serves. “I was just really pumped for that game.”
Johnson had added motivation against the Mountaineers as she recently moved to Rainier, and wanted to put on a strong showing against her new neighbors.
It’s safe to say that was more than accomplished.
“I told her they weren’t going to let her back in Rainier after that,” Lizee said. “Her serves just seem to float, but it’s a hard float. She puts no movement on that ball. When there’s no rotation on the ball, that’s when it moves side to side and that is really hard to follow.”
Motivated by her teammates’ success, VanMarter took center stage in the rematch against Rainier as she finished with an equally impressive 11 aces.
“Abbie has these nice long arms. So when she gets up there and makes contact with the ball and drives it down, she has that really hard serve that’s low on the net. It’s really hard to play,” Lizee said. “The serve is so important. When you get a couple aces the other team just doesn’t want to see the ball any more. They want someone else to pass it.”
The Navigators are coming off a 15-5 season, finishing third in the 2B Pacific League before advancing to the district tournament. The team last secured a state playoff berth in 2011.
“We’re just bonding together a lot right now. We have so many younger players on the team,” VanMarter said. “We’re just trying to build the volleyball team up here. We’ve had a great start and just want to keep on going.”