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After road wins last week at Kennedy and Santiam, the Bulldogs beat Colton at home

ANDY DIECKHOFF/MADRAS PIONEER - Culver junior Hensley Wachter (10) celebrates one of her many kills during the Bulldogs' three-set victory over Colton on Monday night.Culver volleyball is off to a hot start in the Tri-River Conference, notching three impressive league wins in the span of six days. After an emphatic 25-14, 25-13, 25-9 win over Colton on Monday, the Bulldogs are now 4-0 in conference play and 6-5 overall on the season.

"One of the best things we did tonight was our serving," said Culver head coach Alex Carlson after Monday's win. "Shanti (Rosales) just served outstanding. Hali (Soderstrom) was great. Brooke (Bush) starts us off with such strong serving. Those things were really, really cool to see."

Serving is a major focal point of the system Carlson is running in his first season as head coach.

"We really came in and took the approach of focusing on our serve and receive," he noted. "We've improved on that, and with the setbacks we've had early — we missed two weeks of our preseason — we're still kind of coming into form, where some teams have been slightly ahead of us with having more games."

Despite the potential advantage of having played more matches, Culver's opponents in the Tri-River have yet to give them too much trouble. Last Tuesday, the Bulldogs went to Mt. Angel and defeated Kennedy 25-17, 25-7, 25-18. Two days later, they traveled to Mill City and beat Santiam 25-17, 25-15, 25-17. Including Monday's victory, Culver has now won 12 consecutive sets in Tri-River play. Their only slip-up so far came in the very first set of the season against Gervais in a 3-1 win.

"I'm extremely excited," said Carlson of his team's hot start to the Tri-River season. "Our girls beat Kennedy last week and that was the first time they had beaten Kennedy since they've been in high school. So, that was a big step for us and a big momentum builder to go and get a win on the road at Santiam."

"We're learning a lot of things," explained the first-year head coach. "We talked about it last week, how to control an opposing team's crowd. Taking them out of it with our effort and not letting them make a play. We really did that well at Santiam, and then our mindset again tonight was, 'Hey, we're going to have some backing, we're going to have some energy in here again. Now let's control our emotions, so we can use that to our advantage.'"

It was indeed a raucous crowd at the gymnasium at Culver High School, which began its fall semester on Monday. In stark contrast to the Bulldogs' home opener on Sept. 7, students were in the crowd for the tilt against Colton, and they were cheering on the team with coordinated chants and hand gestures. The athletes displayed just as much intensity, jumping in unison for every ace and screaming in triumph with every kill.

"Great way to get things started," said head coach Alex Carlson. "We were very excited. We talked about it as a team that this is our first home match with school in session in two years."

"You kind of forget over the course of this last year and a half," the coach continued. "We're just taking that perspective of being happy and just feeling lucky that we get to do this, to get out and play in front of our fans, our families and our fellow classmates."

"That was really the whole mindset," Carlson added. "Take a minute. Enjoy this, because obviously, it's been a long time. So, it was great to see them do as well as they did with that kind of mindset."

"I think we forget how much we enjoy this and what a special part of (the players') lives this is." Carlson said of playing in front of the home crowd. "We're excited to be back here and we're very excited that our girls performed as well as they did."

The week was not without some turbulence, though, as Culver had some struggles in a non-league tournament at Powder Valley High School. The team went 2-4 in pool play, including an 0-3 mark in the Friday games.

"This last Friday in our pool play," Carlson explained, "we had to send a combination of JV and varsity teams because we played at Santiam on Thursday night. We played at Santiam at 5 o'clock, and then we were supposed to be in North Powder, which is past La Grande, at 8:30 Friday morning to play a game."

The drive from Mill City to North Powder — with a pit stop in Culver along the way — spans more than 350 miles and takes roughly seven hours in peak conditions. Much of the varsity team took Friday off to recuperate, before making the trip out to Powder Valley on Saturday. The Bulldogs went 2-1 in the second day of pool play, with wins over Crane and Wallowa.

"We looked last week at what is the best way to manipulate the schedule," said Carlson. "We have 30 girls out for volleyball, and we need to get more people playing time, too. We have a very strong JV team, and it was a great opportunity where a lot of young girls got to see some varsity-level experience. We got our JV2 girls to play the JV game at Santiam, so they got more experience."

The move by the Culver coaching staff to rest some of its players was a wise decision, as the team faced potential exhaustion from an itinerary that included stops in St. Paul, Mt. Angel, Mill City and North Powder, all in the span of eight days. Carlson is willing to sacrifice some non-league two-setters if it means his team can stay fresh for the all-important Tri-River campaign.

"Our goal is to make the state tournament," he said. "We're going to do that by winning the league."

The Bulldogs' quest continues at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 22, when Culver hosts Delphian in another Tri-River Conference matchup. The Dragons are 1-10 on the season to this point, including an 0-3 mark in league play.

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