Culver girls set the bar high
Culver is knocking on the door of the 2A girls basketball playoffs.
The Bulldogs were just one win away from qualifying for the postseason last year, as they ran out of gas in the Columbia Basin Conference district tournament semifinals against Weston-McEwen.
When they held their first meeting of the season, head coach Scott Fritz told his players he wouldn't be asking what their goals are, instead stating them plainly: win league and reach the state tournament. They've set similar goals in the past few seasons, and the upcoming one is no exception. And why shouldn't they?
Culver returns last year's Columbia Basin Conference Player of the Year in Irma Retano, in addition to Mia Gamboa, who joined Retano on the all-league first team. Both enter their junior seasons as the Bulldogs' leading scorers and playmakers from a year ago, and between them, not too much should change.
Gamboa will once again take on ball-handling and scoring duties as a point guard, and Retano will be the primary scoring option in addition to grabbing rebounds and forcing turnovers on defense.
Perhaps the main difference this season, however, is the number of players who will see the court. Culver's ultra-thin rotation last season, sometimes as few as six girls, put a lot of strain on its starters. Besides the physical demands of playing that many minutes, players like Gamboa and Retano often found themselves in foul trouble.
The Bulldogs plan on having a deeper rotation now. Starters Elly Bautista and Lesli Alvarado contribute experience, while the likes of Mikayla Haessler, Ryanne Scholl and Kiana Webb will presumably play more than they did last season.
"There wasn't much of a rotation last year; I think that really, in the end, hurt us," Fritz said. "And it hurts us for this year, because the girls we're relying on don't have a lot of varsity time. By the time league starts, hopefully they feel they deserve to be out there."
Fritz is back in a full-time head-coaching role after he and Rene Houle shared those duties last season. Houle was involved in a car accident in the middle of last season and missed several games. He said last week he's still recovering from the accident, and won't coach this season as a result.
But the girls are already plenty familiar with Fritz, and likewise, he with them, as he enters his ninth season coaching the varsity squad. The Bulldogs will continue to utilize their full-court press that Fritz has been running for many years, and they will be introducing a new wrinkle to keep opponents on their toes.
"We grew a bond with (Houle), but we also have a bond with Fritz," Gamboa said. "We already know what's up; we're comfortable with him, so I think it's going to be the same."
Though a good portion of their core returns, the Bulldogs will certainly miss the services of Jessica Johnson, a senior all-league player on last year's squad who was a rebounding machine and presence in the post.
While it is unlikely one player can replace all of her contributions, Culver will lean on several post players, notably Alvarado and Haessler, to do so collectively. The Bulldogs don't have much in the way of size, which is nothing new to them. Instead, they hope to wear down other teams with their tenacity.
"We're going to miss her," Retano said. "But we've got a lot of hustle. We might not be tall like other teams. Coach always says we can outhustle other teams .... That's what we're good at. We're tiny, but mighty."
Replacing seniors is a key variable as league teams size each other up, especially at the 2A level. The Bulldogs like their position overall, but the CBC figures to be tough again this year with Weston-McEwen and Pilot Rock — both playoff teams from a year ago -— plus an up-and-coming Heppner team.
In last year's district semifinals, it was Weston-McEwen that knocked off Culver, which granted the TigerScots a playoff berth. That was how close the Bulldogs were. So far this season, judging by Culver's practices, it appears players are willing to work for a better result.
"I think last year stung a little bit," Fritz said. "As far as the entire two hours of practice, their effort has been unbelievable. I've been really happy with it."
Culver plays host to 3A La Pine on Wednesday.