Bulldogs hope to stay on top of the 2A volleyball mountain

Photo Credit: JEFF WILSON/THE PIONEER - The 2014 version of Culver volleyball is in position to win the school's second state title in three years.Climbing to the top of a sports mountain can be relatively easy. It’s staying perched up at the peak that is hard.

And the Culver volleyball team is finding that out.

In just four short years, the Bulldogs have navigated the path to the top of the Class 2A mountain, bringing home three straight state trophies, including the big one in 2012. The challenge now, is to stay up there.

“I do feel like we are still (one of the best teams in the state),” senior Andrea Retano said. “We just need to stay competitive.”

That is the hard part. And it seems to be a little harder to do at the high school level. There is a little thing that is called graduation, and every year it gets some of a program’s best players.

This past spring, it got one of the Bulldogs’ best -- two-time all-state outside hitter Gabrielle Alley.

But Culver has been through this before, and the key component to building longevity is being able to replace great players with a potential great player.

That, if nothing else, has been the key to the system coach Randi Viggiano has put in place. And it is a system that has very few flaws.

“When we were freshmen, we had seniors that worked with us and taught us everything,” senior Jazmin Ruiz said. “So there are always other girls on the team that know they have to work hard and step up.”

Culver has lived through losses like that before. But instead of it getting tougher and tougher to replace those spots, the program’s depth has been making for a much smoother transition.

“We’ve worked pretty well around it,” Retano said.

It has helped that the Bulldogs have had a strong junior varsity program in place. But it has also helped to have someone like Shealene Little in place.

Little, who is a senior this season, is a two-time all-state selection, the 2A Player of the Year in 2012 and has committed to play volleyball at Tennessee Tech, a solid Division I program in the south.

Little has seen the program go from cellar dwelling nothing, playing nothing but junior varsity teams out of league, to class dominating power that seeks out the bigger schools and tougher tournaments to play.

It has paid off with state trophies -- a fourth place in 2011, first in 2012 and third last year.

All that success is nice, but don’t think for a minute this team is getting complacent.

“When people know that you are a good program, they expect a lot out of you. So they know every chance they get to play you, it’s going to be hard, it’s exciting and it’s fun compared to playing a team you know you can beat,” Little said. “We have to make sure that we don’t just think we are good enough. We always have to be working harder and realize (the title) is not ours, we have to earn it. Everyone knows that, even the freshmen.”

Viggiano, entering her fifth season at Culver after being an assistant at 4A power Crook County, said the thing she heard most about the volleyball team was that was just the way it was in Culver. The team wasn’t very good and everyone pretty much had accepted that fact.

“I was offended,” Viggiano said. “I asked them ‘Is that just how it is around here?’ That’s not how it should be and that’s not how it needs to be. Luckily, they jumped on board and worked their butts off.”

Three trophies later, little has changed. The team still works hard, still plays tough opponents when it can and still has fun.

Of course, winning helps.

But even with the past success and the presence of Little, Ruiz, Retano and a solid group of underclassmen, including Lynze Schonneker, Jenny Vega and Margie Beeler, Viggiano said the favorite tag is not one that Culver should be wearing. At least not at this point.

The defending champs, Days Creek, lost 11 kids to graduation and moved down to 1A, but Burns, a solid 3A program moves down to join Kennedy, Weston McEwen and Reedsport. The 2A tournament could end up being one of the most competitive of the year.

“I definitely think we are one of the favorites, but I wouldn’t say we are necessarily the favorite,” Viggiano said.

But the Bulldogs should, and more importantly, expect to be there.

“I will tell you, my returners are hungry, they are hungry to bring back that title,” Viggiano said.

Quick facts

Last season: 27-3 overall, 16-0 in 2A Tri River Conference, placed third at state tournament.

Key returners: Shealene Little, Andrea Retano, Jazmin Ruiz.

Key games: Sept. 4 Ridgeview at Culver, Sept. 8 Madras at Culver, Oct. 7 at Weston McEwen.

Season outlook: In four short years, the Bulldogs have developed into one of the top programs in 2A and have gotten to the point that a state title is a realistic goal each season. With Little back for her final year, and a solid supporting cast around her, a fourth straight state trophy is almost inevitable. But the big prize is also a real possibility and would go nicely with the 2012 2A crown.

2014 schedule

Aug. 30: Culver at Warrenton Tournament, 8 a.m.

Sept. 4: Ridgeview at Culver, 6:15 p.m.

Sept. 6: Culver at Burns Tournament, 9 a.m.

Sept. 8: Madras at Culver, 6:15 p.m.

Sept. 13: Culver at Reedsport Tournament, 8 a.m.

Sept. 16: Irrigon at Culver, 6:15 p.m.

Sept. 18: Dufur at Culver, 6:15 p.m.

Sept. 20: Culver at Regis three-way, 12:30 p.m.

Sept. 26: Pilot Rock at Culver, 5 p.m.

Sept. 27: Culver at McKenzie Tournament, 8 a.m.

Oct. 2: Culver at Stanfield, 6:15 p.m.

Oct. 4: Culver at Country Christian Tournament, 8 a.m.

Oct. 7: Culver at Weston-McEwen, 6:15 p.m.

Oct. 11: Culver at Pilot Rock four-way, 2 p.m.

Oct. 16: Culver at Irrigon, 6:15 p.m.

Oct. 18: Culver hosts league four-way, noon

Oct. 21: Heppner at Culver, 5:15 p.m.

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