State volleyball preview: Columbia River, Ridgefield still among the elite

Defending champion Columbia River and Ridgefield, the 2018 and 2019 champions, among the Southwest Washington teams playing in the three state volleyball tournaments in Yakima this week.

Columbia River looks to defend its state championship, while Ridgefield hopes for its third title in the last four tournaments

The Ridgefield Spudders needed that one, to prove to themselves that they were still among the best in the state as well.

The Columbia River Rapids might have needed that one, too, to remind them that there was still a lot of work to do in order to accomplish the ultimate goal.

Both of these volleyball programs understand greatness.

The Ridgefield Spudders won Class 2A state championships in 2018 and 2019 and then went undefeated in the abbreviated COVID campaign.

Last school year, Columbia River joined elite status, ending Ridgefield’s long winning streak on the way to its own state championship. As if it were fate, the two teams played each other in the final match.

On Friday, both programs will play opening round matches at the 2022 state tournament, with the possibility of meeting again in the finals.

This past weekend, Ridgefield handed Columbia River its first loss of the season, winning the district championship. 

“Wow, the victory for our team solidified that we can compete with the best,” Ridgefield coach Sabrina Dobbs said. “The past few weeks we have been working on the little things, focus, and discipline. It really pulled through for that match. I could see the determination in their eyes and how they were playing.”

At Columbia River, the athletes and coaches got right back to work in practice.

“We are responding really well to the loss,” Columbia River coach Breanne Smedley said. “There is a lot of merit in well-timed losses like that so we’ve been building on the opportunity it has presented all week. The girls are even more focused in and (are) ready for state.”

Columbia River, with that loss, likely lost out on the No. 1 seed in the tournament. Instead, the defending state champs received the No. 2 seed. The Rapids will face No. 15 Ephrata at 10:45 a.m. Friday in the opener.

Ridgefield is on the other side of the bracket with a No. 4 seed. The Spudders take on No. 13 Sedro-Woolley, also at 10:45 a.m. at the Yakima Valley SunDome.

This Columbia River-Ridgefield rivalry has been going on for years. On the court, it is fierce competition. But there is a lot of admiration for one another off the court. The coaches see each other at CrossFit from time to time.

“We talk about our volleyball programs, and when we do I realize we have a lot of similarities,” Dobbs said. “Both our teams have played on the same club teams or against each other in the offseason for years. I believe there is a lot of respect for these two competitive programs.”

“We raise the play of each other and help prepare one another for what we’ll see at state,” Smedley said, adding Mark Morris in there, too. Mark Morris is the third team from the 2A GSHL to make it to state this season. The Monarchs are the 12-seed.

Naturally, to be one of the best teams in the state, there has to be a ton of talent. Columbia River’s Lauren Dreves was voted the most valuable player of the year for offense by the coaches of the 2A GSHL. 

But any successful team needs to have leaders beyond MVP status. These teams have those standouts, as well.

Taegen Benke is an unsung hero for the Columbia River squad. A three-sport athlete with unmatched effort, Smedley said. Benke stepped into the role of middle blocker. 

“She has been making plays for us all season without recognition like our big hitters have been getting,” Smedley said. “She went down (with an injury) in the first set against Ridgefield at districts, and while we responded the best we could, it definitely impacted things.”

At Ridgefield, Paige Stepaniuk did earn first-team, all-league status this season while playing a position best suited for the team’s needs, not her own.

“Paige is very dynamic and should be playing libero,” Dobbs said. “She’s small, but she is one of our top outside hitters and may not get the recognition because of her height.”

A Portland State University commit, she has been on varsity for all four seasons, but did not play much the first two years.

“Paige is the glue to our team,” Dobbs said. “She’s fast, confident, and disciplined. She has a way of holding her teammates accountable for the little things and giving gratitude to her coaches. She’ll be a tough one to see go as this is her last season with us.”

The Class 4A state tournament also begins Friday in Yakima. Camas is the 9-seed and will face No. 8 West Valley of Yakima in the opening round.

The Class 3A state tournament started Thursday morning. Prairie, the 12-seed, will be taking on No. 5 Bellevue at 11:45 a.m.

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