Back where she belongs

For many volleyball players, a good, hard smash to the floor, maybe even a match-clinching kill, represents the pinnacle, the highest of the sport's highs.

But for Ashland senior Piper Cantrell, not even a crowd-pleasing slam can measure up to her personal favorite, albeit less flashy maneuver: the diving save, the dig.

So when Ashland head coach Robin Akpan decided halfway through season, in an unorthodox attempt to improve team chemistry, to move Cantrell from the glamour position of outside hitter to the all-time back-row defense libero spot, Cantrell gladly took her knee pads and reclaimed the hole she plugged last season.

"It felt so good to get the libero jersey back on," she said. "I missed it so much. It's my passion, it's what I want to play in college, so as soon as I stepped into that role I felt at peace again. I like playing outside, but it was really exciting to (move back) to libero."

The switch has worked out well for the Grizzlies as a whole, too. Since dropping their first two meetings with Southern Oregon Hybrid rival Eagle Point, the Grizzlies have won the last two heading into tonight's crucial tie-breaker at Mountain Avenue Gym. The winner will earn the SOH 5A league title by virtue of its two wins in the three-match series — only two of the four matches were league tilts — plus a late-season boost in the 5A power rankings, which will determine matchups in the upcoming 32-team play-in round.

Not that the Grizzlies need any extra motivation when it comes to playing Eagle Point, Ashland's only 5A competition south of Eugene.

"I think that the girls definitely get excited and they put a lot of their focus on playing Eagle Point," Akpan said, "and I know with Eagle Point, it's the same thing. They've come and scouted us a couple times as well. I think that we are all very aware of the significance of it, and it's great that we have a third (match) this year to balance that tie out."

As an outside hitter, Cantrell was one of the bright spots for the Grizzlies early in the season. She often led the team in kills — she still ranks second on the team in that category with 84 — and usually was one of the dig leaders, too. But taking on the role of Ashland's primary point-finisher prevented Cantrell from exploiting her greatest strength, which is tracking down spiked volleyballs barely reachable and, regardless of body position, bumping them to Ashland setter Cassie Hall.

It's a refined skill that happens to be crucial. Indeed, a subpar libero can drag down a team on both offense and defense, while a good one will supply a major boost for both. And what does it take to be a good libero? Only expert timing, a soft touch and cat-like lateral quickness. Luckily for the Grizzlies, Cantrell possesses all three, not to mention an on-court personality trait also attached to great liberos: greed.

"Probably my favorite thing is being able to read the hitter and take away a point from them, stealing points from them," said Cantrell, who's been a crafty thief while racking up a team-high 238 digs. "A lot of people that watch volleyball think it's all about the big kill, but it's just as amazing to me to steal that kill away from someone."

Since making the move, Cantrell and the Grizzlies have been much more efficient, says Akpan. Cantrell's pinpoint passing has made life easier on Hall, whose talents can now be fully employed as she looks to set up hitters like Shelby Minor (123 kills), Megan Rodden (67 kills) and Renee Lenthe (53 kills).

"(Cantrell) controls the back of the court so well," Akpan said. "Piper will consistently give us the focus, the leadership and I think her teammates trust her to be able to cover a wide range of things."

Teammates like Hall, Ashland's leader in assists (220) who was out sick last week but should be close to 100 percent tonight.

"(Hall) controls the court," Akpan said, "and has been very smart making decisions, knowing who to set. The things she has done this year I have not seen from her, diving across the court and being able to get her hands on the ball. It's very exciting for a coach to see that skill and desire level."

The results are obvious both on the court and on the scoreboard.

After being outplayed by Eagle Point in the first two matchups, Ashland has won the past two meetings by a combined score of five sets to zero. Now, the Grizzlies have an opportunity to possibly pass up the Eagles in the 5A power rankings. Currently, Ashland (7-11) is 15th, four spots behind Eagle Point (11-8).

The Grizzlies will have to shake out of a mini-slump to pull it off. They're 1-5 in their last six matches.

Hall isn't worried. After all, it's Ashland versus Eagle Point. It's a rivalry match.

"Every time we play them it brings out the best in both teams," Hall said. "We're really evenly matched and the girls just get so (excited), it's really fun.

"I think when we get on the court and get in the groove of things, it'll be fine, but there's definitely nerves a little bit. But I think we'll rise to it."

Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or

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