With six returning starters from its fifth-straight state championship in 2010, this year's
Crook County (Prineville, Ore.)
volleyball team is the team to beat in Oregon this year.
However, Cowgirl coaches and players aren't talking about making it six straight. Talk centers more on things they "can" do. Or "cans" in general.
They can focus on "practice perfect," or "perfect practice," as coach Rosie Honi stresses daily. They can focus on "bringing up the level of play" of the team's four non-starters who join the six returnees, all of whom have experienced only state championships in their prep careers.
"Cans" is for their many can drives, the main tactic to fund the most successful volleyball program in Oregon history.
In Oregon, any beverage can turned in for recycling nets a 5-cent return. Those small pieces of change have added up to big results for the Crook County program.
Like many Central Oregon municipalities, Prineville has been hit with double-digit unemployment, record foreclosures, lower tax bases and huge budget cuts. Despite the loss of its athletic funding, from socks to balls to associated fees to coaching stipends, the Cowgirl volleyballers have persevered.
They have excelled like no other Oregon volleyball program and can drives have played a part of that success.
It all starts with work ethic.
"Collecting cans is a dirty job, but someone has to do it," said Honi, who has been coaching at CCHS since going winless in 1996. "Collecting the cans enables us to have a volleyball program and do great things. It is also good for the environment, so while it's necessary for us to get on the court, we all know what a good thing it is we are doing for the environment."
Just last week, the program earned $728 with its most recent can drive. In 2010, the Cowgirls collected more than 60,000 cans.
"We need $20,000 to fund the program," said Honi, who has become known as the "dumpster diver" around the CCHS campus. "Any time I see an empty can, I'm all over it."
The coach noted they do fundraising through other avenues, like training camps, hosting barbecue dinners and dances, doing carwashes, obtaining sponsors and a Blue-Goal taco dinner that draws 500 community members to see an intersquad scrimmage.
"I guess we've done just about every type of fundraiser imaginable," said Honi. "The community is very supportive."
And there is a lot to support. The Cowgirls have won every state title since 2006. The first four were at division 5A, last year was division 4A. The economy has led to a decline in enrollment at CCHS, forcing the move to 4A.
That hasn't kept the Cowgirls from playing, and beating, the biggest schools in Oregon. Prior to the 2010 state tournament, the Cowgirls played only one team with a smaller enrollment. Most of their opponents had double and triple the student body as CCHS's 750, plus or minus a setter or libero. All of their losses last season came against state-ranked teams from the larger 5A and 6A classifications.
The Cowgirls opened the season with a 3-0 sweep of 2,000-plus enrollment Redmond (6A) Tuesday night.
How do the prospects look for a sixth-straight Oregon title?
On paper, they look excellent with 4A Player of the Year junior Makayla Lindbergh
and all-state setter senior Kelsi Kemper
leading the way. Again, don't forget that this team – all six of the starters – has only known state championships.
Four of the Cowgirls also played for the Rimrock U-18 club volleyball team that placed 10th in the U.S. Nationals in Atlanta in midsummer. In addition to Lindbergh and Kemper, Cowgirl teammates Marissa Pope
and libero Braden Johnson
were members of the excelling Rimrock squad.
"It's a pretty special group with lots of ability and experience," said Honi, who praised the support of her husband, Jerry, her assistant varsity coach and head JV coach.
Possibly the most special player is Lindbergh, who has been Player of the Game in the last two championship finals.
"She's very mindful, as are all of our players," said Honi, 61. "Makayla works hard and wants everything to be perfect. That's our goal as a team and everyone has bought into it."
Honi also mentioned that "mindful" isn't just court-smart, as three of the last four graduating classes have had the class valedictorian and starter Christi Kelso
is on track for that honor this year.
Though Honi doesn't recall her overall won-loss record, during their five-year title run they have won 154 and lost 32. All of the losses have come against state-ranked teams, many at higher enrollment classifications.
But success has always followed Honi. Her first season at CCHS resulted in zero wins and it wasn't until her third season that she got more than three wins. However, in 2000, the Cowgirls won their first league title and it's been win-win ever since.
But how do you go from a last-place team to one of the most-storied teams in Oregon history? Honi credits the University of Washington's annual volleyball camp.
"I've been to pretty much every volleyball camp in the country and many are very good, but UW's clinic changed the way I coach," she explained. "It's the best clinic anywhere. It's three days with the same coaches teaching the entire program and it is all based on scientific numbers. They score everything in a practice and I have ever since."
Honi explained a typical Cowgirl workout has two parts: technique, which isn't scored, and "pressure" play, which is scored.
"We do a lot of station work before we go into scoring or clock pressure," said Honi, who plans to retire from teaching and coaching in seven years.
As for her "secret to success," Honi keeps "coaching" herself.
"We do a lot of filming, a lot of visualization. I even film myself," she said. "I'm not a yeller, but I do tend to pull my hair at the wrong time. Athletes need positive reinforcement, not negative. They need to know we have confidence in them and that we know they can get the job done."
Honi said she coaches the same way in club with younger girls. She coaches the U10, U12 and U14 teams.
"By the time they get to my high school program, they know everything when they come in," said Honi, who began coaching at age 17 in Portland. "When they've reached high school, they know our system and they have played a lot of volleyball. We focus on sound fundamentals."
Honi, who might be best described as having excessive energy, offers the same advice to young volleyball players as she does older ones.
"You've got to have feedback and get as many reps as possible. You've got to have reps and more reps," she said. "Listen to your coaches and follow their instruction. The more they talk to you, the more they believe in you. Always be mindful. Never come up with an excuse."
Sounds like a lot of good can-do advice.