In the early going, Madras volleyball gave Culver everything it had, but it didn't last long.
The 4A White Buffalos faced the 2A Bulldogs Thursday evening in a matchup of the two Jefferson County schools. Although the Bulldogs were the heavy favorites playing in their own gym, they needed a little time to dispel their nerves in front of their home crowd.
Culver's Margie Beeler set up Irma Retano for a kill to take the first point. But Madras took nine of the next 10 points, with the likes of Olivia Symons and Kiersten Anderson serving aces for the Lady Buffs. When Anderson hit her third consecutive ace to help Madras gain a 9-2 edge, Culver came back to tie the first set at 10 points apiece. From that point on, the Bulldogs never trailed, and went on a 23-6 run to close the first set. Culver claimed all three sets in convincing fashion, winning by scores of 25-15, 25-10 and 25-9.
"It's always that home game early in the season, where we got to get some nerves out, but then to come out and outscore them 23-6, I think says what impressed me the most about our team tonight," Culver head coach Randi Viggiano said. "We played consistent all three sets after that first little run. (Anderson) had a great serve; she was taking it to us, but once we made some adjustments, kind of settled in, (it was) just a really consistent game."
Retano, who played her first home game of the season Thursday after returning from a family vacation, led the Bulldogs with 11 kills while adding nine digs and four aces. Thursday's match came two days after she made her season debut, in what was ultimately a dramatic 3-2 victory over 2A foe Grant Union on the road. Having her back has given Culver another dynamic outside hitter, and she also contributes an easygoing, happy-go-lucky personality that can take pressure off of her teammates.
"She's just another player who's used to being on the court a lot, and she's got a lot of talent, so that really helps," Beeler said.
Beeler herself recorded a team-high five aces and racked up 30 assists, accounting for all but one of the team total 31, while Claire Bender added eight kills and Catylynn Duff chipped in six of her own.
Bender, the Bulldogs' one and only freshman on the 12-person roster, is the latest freshman starter during Viggiano's seven-year coaching stint. Each season has featured one, and Bender, although only a few games into her high school career, has already proved to be a key component of Culver's rotation.
"There's always that one incoming freshman who's a cut above the rest of (her) class and even some that are older," Viggiano said. "I have high expectations for what freshmen are to do on the team, and she has risen to that."
Beeler added, "I think she's stepping it up. She knows her role. She puts a lot of pressure on herself, but … she'll be good for us this year."
Following Thursday's win, Culver continued its nonconference schedule with successive, 2-0 wins over Monroe and Country Christian last Saturday at the Country Christian Tournament in Molalla, improving its overall record to 6-1.
Madras, meanwhile, saw its strong start slip away in the blink of an eye. Even with a near-full roster, after returning Ally Dominiak and Niyallee Cochran from injuries, players and coaches noticed a lack of communication that contributed to the defeat.
"Tonight, our communication was off," Anderson said. "Once we started getting behind, our talk kind of went away and so did our intensity. Our first game went really good, and then after that our communication just kind of died."
The Buffs have seen on a couple occasions how difficult it can be to dig themselves out of a rut. Still, the match provided another teaching moment for a young team.
"It seemed once our lead was lost, the communication was lost," Madras head coach Brianna Hewson said. "It's like they all shut down. It's happened before and something we continue to work on."
Their nonconference schedule has now concluded, and although the Buffs had some tough moments, they know their slate is clean upon the start of Tri-Valley Conference play. Playing a host of tough teams, including Ridgeview and Culver, which have both hovered at or near the top of their respective classification rankings, Madras used the matches to tinker with rotations and simply gain more time playing together on the court.
"I just told the girls that these season starting games don't matter to me," Hewson said. "With technically only four varsity returners, we have a lot (to learn) when it comes to playing together. We've been trying new positions and rotations to find out what works best as a team. These starting games have been excellent competition at levels many have not seen before. It's a learning experience all around, but I hope it shows them what they all have the ability to do, and (hope) they use it once league starts. Starting this week is what matters."
Madras went on to the Cascade Tournament to play four matches last Saturday. The Buffs beat Newport, while losing to Cottage Grove, Scappoose and Astoria in three-set matches. Overall, Hewson was pleased with her team's performance, even in losses that they prevented from turning into blowouts.
"We held our own against teams that have all been playing together for a while and know each other's ins and outs," she said.
Madras began its Tri-Valley Conference slate Tuesday against Molalla, and next up, will face Estacada at home Thursday at 6 p.m.
Culver will face its first Columbia Basin Conference opponent when it travels to Heppner. The match is set to begin at 6 p.m.