Elise Matheson called the experience bittersweet.
Matheson was with her Olympia High School volleyball teammates at last year’s Class 4A state tournament in Kennewick to pick up an award.
All were in street clothes. Not a single Bear was playing in the tournament. Olympia didn’t even advance to districts in 2017. Their season had been over for more than two weeks, but here they were standing on the same floor along with the best teams in the state.
Olympia was in attendance to receive the state academic championship – a lofty achievement in itself, but something about it felt off.
“It was such an honor to receive the state academic championship last year,” Matheson said, “but at the same time we still wanted to be playing.”
Fast forward 12 months and Matheson got what she wanted as the surging Bears are handed to the state tournament for the first time since 2014 after finishing second in the 4A West Central District tournament.
“This is a really great group of kids,” said head coach Laurie Creighton, who is in her 40th season at Olympia. “They’ve shown such resiliency through the adversity they’ve faced. They’ve bought into their theme, ‘We is greater than me’ and they have each other’s back. They care about each other and play for each other. Those qualities don’t guarantee success, but certainly put us in position to make the most of all our abilities as a team. It’s pretty apparent when we play teams who don’t possess that.”
Playing in the incredibly talented 4A South Puget Sound League, the Bears finished sixth in the league after posting an 8-6 record during the regular season.
Olympia (12-9) kicked off its run toward the state tournament by knocking off third-seeded Emerald Ridge in the opening round of the 4A SPSL tournament before securing the league’s fourth seed into district play.
“What we’ve been saying all season and what we’ve been trying to accomplish is playing one point at a time and staying in the moment, and having the court connected to the bench and the bench connected to the court, and working as a unit,” said Camryn Wilson, who is one of eight seniors on the roster and joins Matheson and Beatrice Asomaning as team captains. “It does take some time to get used to playing like that. The goal was, hopefully, we’d get there by the end of the season.”
It certainly looks like they have as the Bears looked nothing like a sixth-place team during the district tournament, where the team opened up play against Auburn Riverside, the defending 4A state champions.
After dropping the first set (25-16), the Bears sent the Ravens into the consolation bracket by winning the next three (25-20, 25-14, 25-22) to move onto the quarterfinals where, once again, the team proceeded to drop the opening set to Tahoma.
“We lost by a decent amount too. We didn’t even get to double digits,” Wilson said about the 25-9 setback to Tahoma, “but right after that first game, (senior middle blocker) Emily Church said, ‘They’re beatable,’ and from that moment forward we connected as a team.”
The Bears reeled off three straight sets (25-22, 25-21, 25-13) to not only move on to the district semifinals, but also secure their berth into the state tournament.
In the district semifinals, Olympia continued to play the role of spoiler, knocking off Camas (20-25, 25-13, 25-21, 15-12).
The run came to an end in the championship match against undefeated Kentridge (22-0) as the Chargers posted a 3-1 triumph (25-17, 17-25, 25-23, 25-15).
“The resiliency they’ve displayed all season and even within their recent playoff matches has been impressive. They’ve been down 0-1, in sets, three times and came back and won against really good teams. They’ve been coolheaded in the in crunch time,” said Creighton, who guided the Bears to state titles in 1998 and 2011.
“There have been some incredible rallies these past three weeks of the playoffs, where players have kept us in some really long tough rallies by pursuing balls, even when it seemed unlikely we’d have a chance. More times than not, those efforts, sometimes by multiple players on one rally, we’ve prevailed. Those are huge points to win and really take shift the momentum to our team. It’s been a lot of fun to celebrate those great efforts. It’s part of what makes volleyball such a fun sport to play and to watch.”
The Bears (12-9) will open state tournament play on November 16 at 9:45 a.m. at the SunDome in Yakima against University (12-4). The winner of that first-round match will play the winner of Kamiak (12-7) and West Valley of Yakima (17-0) in the quarterfinals.
This marks the 23rd state trip for a Creighton-coached Olympia team. The Bears are seeking the program’s 14th state trophy overall and first since finishing fourth in 2012.
“This season is definitely really important for us because we have so many seniors,” Matheson said. “It’s important that we keep going as far as we can because all of us really want it for each other.”