Put yourself in the shoes of a collection of high schoolers from Longview in the then-Podunk gymnasium at Renton High school back in 1990.
The Lumberjills had lost. Actually, they’d lost twice. At State, no less. Once in pool play when that was a thing. Once again in bracket play, because single elimination hadn’t yet been in use.
They were on the brink but it wasn’t entirely clear if they were positioned for all-time greatness, or elimination.
The district tournament had been an afterthought. Even now, that State tournament looms large in the minds of those players a full 30 years later. But the District tournament is fleeting, an extension of the regular season. No more. It was just a requirement along the way, and of course R.A. Long would win it. Nobody else had a chance.
And so it was written.
The Jills rolled past Hoquiam, Capital and Olympia. They lost just a single set along the way thanks to a balanced attack that saw league Player of the Year, Mandy Wean, total a team-high 23 kills in the three victories.
“If we keep playing the way we’re playing, it’s going to take someone really, really special to stop us,” Slechta told The Daily News after districts. “No one is going to let that happen on our team. We have hopes of playing highly at State.”
It would be easy to look at R.A. Long’s volleyball program and assume that all the work was done within the confines of the Lumberdome, or over at Olympic Elementary, where the JV team practiced at the time.
One can rightly praise coaches like Bill Marshall or Marcia Caneff or Jackie Slechta. They can be praised for developing good players and building teams, for sending players off to this secondary school or that, for winning tournaments and titles and hanging banners, and showing subsequent generations the fruits of those labors.
It would be easy to believe that successes and failures are all simply a matter of either good, or bad, coaching. But it would be wrong.
These programs weren’t built in high school. They were built slowly in the years before that. They were built not only by players and coaches, but by fans and parents, by those who cheered and those who drove.
The enduring success of the Lumberjills of that era was built upon an impressive infrastructure. A kind of society. A family. It allowed the team to focus only on volleyball. It was a special insulation. A unique security.
“We had a group of parents that was there with food and snacks. They did everything,” Slechta said. “All the help around us made it so much easier for me and the girls.”
Flashback time again.
Close your eyes. Think back to youth sports, whether you were a player or a parent. Which character you choose is irrelevant to this exercise.
Remember at the game when someone’s mom brought orange slices? Or in between doubleheaders when a dad busted out a cooler of sandwiches?
Remember getting a ride from a teammate because your parents were out of town for whatever reason? Remember coaches going out of their way to make sure underprivileged kids didn’t get boxed out of the game they love and time with their friends just because they can’t afford the shoes or gear or fees or whatever?
Cowlitz Volleyball Club was all that and more.
Not only did the girls who played for Cowlitz arrive at high school with advanced skills, everyone around them did, as well.
So much of club sports revolves around travel. Travel here. Travel there. Travel to this tournament or that. Travel home and travel back. Not all parents can manage to go at the same time, or at all in some case. So arrangements are ineveitably made. Deals are struck. People bond.
And so it was.
The players arrived on the high school with experience. And so did the parents.
For whatever reason, the Jills could not play well in the morning.
Slechta doesn’t have any theories as to why. She insists it was a feature, not a bug.
The State tournament proved no different for R.A. Long.
Thankfully, though, the old format allowed for some wiggle room, some margin for error. Teams were split into two four-team pools, played a round robin then got seeded into a double elimination bracket.
If there was any team that benefitted from that roundabout style, it was the Jills. After registering a sleepwalking loss in a tournament opening loss to Enumclaw, they managed to wake up in time to beat Ellensburg and Mt. Si to emerge as the top team out of their pool on Friday.
After that initial loss to the Hornets, Slechta gathered her six seniors and gave them a wakeup call that might have frightened the younger players . It was time to step up. At State it was going to take something extra.
But the Jills drew a morning match again on Saturday, and again played drowsily, this time getting swept by Sehome. And again, the Jills rallied, this time beating Chief Sealth and Eastside Catholic to earn a spot in the semifinals.
With a shot in the title match on the line RAL trailed by nine points to Eastside in the second set. It was a scenario reminiscent of the summer tournament where the Jills made an extended comeback with their backs against the wall and managed to impress all in attendance.
That’s when, trailing 9-8, Angie McDaniel and her nasty topspin serve stepped up to the line. At that point there was no doubt in the minds of those in red and black that RAL would win.
“If I remember right, (Eastside) had a lot of tall girls. And so, it’s kind of intimidating when you have that many tall girls,” McDaniel said. “The front line’s gonna be really difficult because they’re gonna be able to block and be there for everything we throw at ‘em.
“So I just tried to serve, and I had a lot of topspin on my serve. I think I did get a couple aces with my serve and then we were able to just work our way one point at a time until we finally realized we got enough ahead that we had it in the bag. But it was a struggle all the matches were so back-and-forth. It was crazy.”
That turn of events was fresh in the mind of Heather Pederson-Woodruff as well.
“I just remember the reaction of the parents and the student body that came,” Pederson said. “It was one of those moments where we were like, ‘We did it. We made it to the finals.’ That was our goal that day...It was total exuberance.”
The Weans didn’t have a lot growing up.
The sisters — Mandy and Angie — were standout athletes from a young age and began to gravitate towards volleyball.
While maybe not as financially demanding as a sport like softball, it’s still got plenty of time and cash commitments. You have to buy shoes and knee pads and pay for team fees or hotels and tournaments and such.
The Weans worked hard to provide whatever they could for their daughters, but the family wasn’t alone. Not at all.
The whole Cowlitz Volleyball Club rallied around them, led by figures like Marshall and many others.
“Looking back now, the extreme sense of gratitude I feel to the people in this community that helped give young women a chance to learn so many life skills by providing the opportunities on the volleyball court is unreal,” Angie Wean said. “Jackie is our coach and leader of the team. I think about Bill Marshall. One of my seventh grade club coaches was Bill Tuggle, who went on to coach at LCC. Paul Batzle, who I played with his daughters. He know lives behind the alley from me. People that gave up so much. And I’m sure they gleaned the joy in seeing us do well, but the people that made sacrifices — including our parents — so we could do that and learn the life skills that we all use today is something that’s very hard to pay back.”
But even today, they sure do try.
At some point during the season, the Highline Community College volleyball coach — who later was involved in coaching National team programs — gave a blanket offer that any Lumberjill who wanted to attend Highline had an open offer.
A couple Jills took up the offer. Most went to play somewhere in college. All took the lessons they learned with them and do their best to give back. They’ve become high school coaches, soldiers, nurses. They’ve taken what they learned about working within a team, believing, taking direction, and bouncing back.
By the time the final semifinal point was notched the RAL fan base was rabid.
“It was just this unified energy,” Amanda Riley said. “When you think of the 12th Man, it was one of those things where the crowd put so much more energy into the whole experience.”
To compare crowd sizes, one might be led to assume the Jills had never been to State before, because their side of the gym was full while the opposite sides were sparely populated. It was even more jarring considering that schools like Mt. Si and Eastside Catholic, and even Sehome, are closer to Renton than Longview.
But Chris Fristch’s policy for his football players, that built-in support infrastructure and the overriding vibe around the Jills had taken off. The symbiotic relationship, the unity of mind between crowd and team was in full force.
It was a red and black attack.
At the hotel the night before the championship — a rematch against Sehome — the football players presented each of the Lumberjills with a bouquet of flowers as a sort of send-off. Multiple rooter buses full of students came to watch.
After hearing their names and receiving the flowers they put them on the ground.
Nicole Burckhardt’s mom thought it was a rather macabre sight.
“She said it looked like we were putting them on our graves,” Burckhardt said with a chuckle. “Because we thought we weren’t going to win.”
But once they donned their uniforms and took the floor, the doubt flew out the window faster than a Mandy Wean smash.
“We just came out and played like, ‘No big deal. If we get second, we get second. We already lost to them once. We have nothing to lose,’” Burckhardt said. “And just having the support of the community and the kids in the school — literally the whole entire side was full. It’s just an unbelievable feeling to have that.”
As it turned out, Sehome had no chance.
The Jills were a certified team of destiny They had overcome too much. A new coach. A bad start. Untimely losses. A lineup shakeup.
And through it all, the Jills rose. And rose. And rose again.
Soon the season was over. There were no games left to play, no hills to climb, and the Jills were champions.
As the Jills tell it now, the name “R.A. Long Lumberjills” meant something. It carried weight. To be defeated by RAL was to be defeated by champions. To be beaten by RAL was a regional rite of passage, of sorts.
“Even these women that we were going head-to-head with, that we played club against, that we’ve seen in all these different gyms around the state, there was a respect that we were Lumberjills, that we were doing it, and we were doing it again after it was done before us,” Angie Wean said. “And that was pretty cool.”
On the ride home, it was like the bus was flying. The rubber tires weren’t touching the pavement, and the Jills weren’t sitting on the benches. Everyone was floating.
And yet, they wanted more.
“It was funny because all we talked about was, ‘Why isn’t there anything beyond State? Why can’t we go farther?’” Slechta said. “‘Why isn’t there a bigger District or a Nationals or something? We wanted to keep playing. We enjoyed everyone so much. That’s what we kept talking about.”
And thirty years later, those who were there are still talking about it.