The Crook County Cowgirls have gotten off to a slow start in the 2017 volleyball season.
The Cowgirls have played one of the toughest schedules in the state early in the season, playing defending Class 4A state champion Sisters in their opening game, and then playing Summit, who finished third a year ago in Class 5A, in their second game.
Thursday night, the Cowgirls went on the road to tackle possibly the most difficult opponent that they will face all season, the defending Class 5A state champion Bend Lava Bears.
The Lava Bears return five starters from last year's state championship team, while the Cowgirls have just one starter remaining from a year ago.
Crook County received bad news the night before the game when they found out that middle blocker Madison Kussman was done for the year.
Kussman, who had played varsity each of her three previous years on the team, announced following Wednesday's practice that she had signed a modeling contract and would be working most weekends, making it impossible for her to play in tournaments.
As a result, Kussman and the Cowgirls parted ways.
"It was stressing me big time," Crook County head coach Rosie Honl said. "I went to bed at 3:30 a.m. and woke up at 5:30 a.m."
Without Kussman in the lineup, Honl made a big change in the Cowgirls' lineup.
Early in the season, they had tried both a 5-1 and a 6-2 rotation, but for Thursday's game at Bend, they went to a 4-2 offense. With the new offense, the Cowgirls didn't have a right side hitter for the entire match against the Lava Bears.
"We don't need a right side hitter," Honl said of her decision. "We can run some slides once we get these middles more experience."
With the new lineup, the Cowgirls played well at times against the Lava Bears but were unable to overcome Bend's experience as they fell in straight sets, 25-17, 25-12, 25-10.
The Cowgirls struggled offensively most of the night as the taller Lava Bears blocked effectively.
However, the Cowgirls played solid defense all night.
"Kynzie was amazing, wasn't she?" Honl said of libero Mekynzie Wells. "And Kenna Woodward and Liz Barker were great for never playing in the middle before this year."
Wells, a junior, in just her third start at libero, finished with 21 digs in the contest. Several other Cowgirls also had more digs than usual, as Raegan Wilkins finished with 10, Cassidy Dill with eight, Kerigan Waibel with seven, and Anna Woodward with six.
Meanwhile, although they didn't get a lot of blocks, both Woodward and Barker were effective in the middle, getting a lot of touches on balls and slowing down Bend's powerful hitters.
"It feels really good to get a starting spot," Woodward said. "I just really enjoy playing with these girls. It's a privilege playing teams like Bend because it tests us, but it also shows how much we need to work on as well."
Woodward finished with a pair of block kills on the night while Dill and Wilkins each added one block kill.
With the Cowgirl offensive attack sputtering, no Cowgirls were in double figures in kills. Wilkins finished with seven kills, while Dill added six.
The Cowgirls also served effectively, with Waibel going seven for seven from the service line, Kennedy Buckner going nine for 10, Anna Woodward six for seven, and Dill five for six.
Woodward added seven assists, while Buckner finished with six.
Cambree Scott had a monster match for the Lava Bears, finishing with 12 kills, five blocks and four aces. Megan Bushnell added 26 assists for the Lava Bears, while Olivia Armstrong finished with 15 digs.
With the win, the Lava Bears improved to 4-2 on the season. Their two losses have both come in tournaments as they lost close matches to Ridgeview and Camas, Washington.
Meanwhile, the Cowgirls fell to 0-3. More importantly, Crook County is just 25th in the OSAA Class 4A power rankings, their lowest ranking since the current system was established five years ago.
"We have played tough teams that are banging the ball at us," Honl said. "But we are getting better every day, and I'm proud of them. They played tough."
Crook County is on the road again today as they travel to Estacada, 2-3, for the Tri-Valley Conference opener for both teams.
JV and freshman action is scheduled to start at 4:30 p.m. with varsity play to follow at approximately 6 p.m.