In the Bleachers with Billy
August is here. I know that isn't exactly a news flash, but the time has gone by so fast this summer that it's tough to believe school is starting again. Sorry, kids. It's almost time to hit the books and learn stuff.
In the coming weeks, high school sports in the area will kick off, and fans will once again be able to watch their favorite White Buffalos and Bulldogs take the playing field, or court, in volleyball's case.
And speaking of volleyball, I mentioned the local netters briefly in my last column, and when I said both the Buffs and Bulldogs would be very good this year, I meant it.
Both teams are returning a lot of the talent that took them to state tournaments last year, and in the case of Culver, a 2A state title.
Out of all the volleyball matches I've watched covering high school sports in Oregon, the Bulldogs' match against Days Creek was - without a doubt - the best one. It had drama nearly every point, the stands were packed and the crowd was rock concert loud. Folks probably should have been wearing ear plugs as a precaution.
Can the Bulldogs bring home back-to-back state titles on the volleyball hardwood this fall? I think so.
Replacing the presence of middle blocker Cassie Fulton isn't going to be easy to do. Having someone that is 6-foot-3 stick her big hands above the net to deny attacks by the opposition isn't exactly a coachable thing. She's 6-3, and you can't teach someone how to be tall.
They are also going to have to replace their setter, since Jahnie Cleveland took the graduation walk in May. The setter is the most important position to a volleyball team. They need to be athletic enough to turn poor first touches into good, clean sets for an attack to happen, and they need to be pinpoint accurate when setting the ball to the hitters.
Culver will have the best player at the 2A level on the floor, junior Shealene Little, and another outstanding hitter in senior Gabrielle Alley to attack with.
With supporting players like Emma Hoke, Andrea Retano and Hannah Lewis (along with others, of course), it won't be a surprise to anyone that Culver will probably be the most talented team in whatever gym they are in at a given moment. The crucial thing is to play together, work hard and not lean on that talent, but apply it. There's a huge difference there. Working hard and doing things right when the bleachers are empty allows a team to properly apply its skills to any situation when the bleachers are full of screaming fans.
There's no switch to flip on and start playing like superstars, although sometimes the way Culver came back from a number of deficits last year, it may have seemed that way.
Winning consistently is a long process and goes beyond talent. Culver has the right ingredients, so to speak, to make a cake that says "Champs" across it; they just have to mix them properly.
Moving on to the Madras volleyball team, one of the state's surprise teams last season after it knocked off La Grande in the state 4A quarterfinals last year, on its way to a fifth-place finish at the state tournament.
Needless to say, they won't be a surprise to anyone this year.
The losses of libero (fancy word for defensive specialist) Lauren Simmons, Sarah Brown and Natalie Martin will hurt a little, but the Buffs have more than enough talent to make a return trip to the state tournament, and perhaps improve on last season's finish.
After talking with new head coach Rhea Cardwell last week, it's easy to see why Madras High School athletic director Rory Oster hired her. Flawless fundamentals are what championships teams are built on, and I think Cardwell will have an excellent plan to make sure her team is fundamentally sound.
I'm not promising a state championship this year, by any means, because like I said earlier, winning takes some time.
Having players like Alexis Urbach, Shelby Mauritson and Elle Renault back for another year is going to be crucial. Obviously, three more players have to be on the floor, plus reserve players, so it will be interesting to see who emerges from daily doubles to earn a spot in the varsity rotation.
I haven't been this excited about volleyball in a long time, but I have a feeling this season is going to be a very exciting one for Madras and Culver at the net.
Another noteworthy thing I'd like to mention: Since I worked in Hermiston, I was contacted by the website OregonLive.com to vote in their 5A and 6A football polls. I'm a sports junkie at heart, and since I covered a 5A school in Hermiston, I was in tune with the large school scene quite a bit.
I'm still keeping tabs on the big boys and submitting my ballots, and they just released the preseason poll. I'll admit, they mean absolutely nothing to the outcome of the season, but it gives people an idea of who to watch and look out for, and leaves room for teams "out of nowhere" to rocket into polls later in the season and get some recognition.
I think they should do a 4A poll as well, but my voice alone won't make that happen. So if you would like to see a 4A poll to go along with the others, feel free to contact them through their site. Maybe sometime down the road, the Madras White Buffalos will be in it, and people on the other side of the mountains will know life exists out here.