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Bulldogs get a first-round bye after winning the Tri-River's western division

PMG PHOTO: ANDY DIECKHOFF - Culver senior Emma Richards celebrates during Friday's victory over Western Christian. Head coach Alex Carlson praised Richards and fellow senior Lucy Louden (1) for their leadership as the team made its final push.Culver volleyball has already met one of its major goals this season after securing home-court advantage in the Tri-River Conference playoffs next week. The Bulldogs won league matches on Thursday, Friday and Monday to clinch their spot atop the Tri-River's eastern division, giving them an inside track to the state playoffs.

"We're excited," said Culver head coach Alex Carlson. "We feel very lucky. When we talked before the season, one of our goals was to be in the position to host a home playoff game with a chance to go the state playoffs."

After losing three straight matches, Culver (10-8, 8-3) has strung together three consecutive victories to right the ship on their way to playoffs. The new win streak started last Thursday when the Bulldogs dispatched of Kennedy with ease, winning 25-16, 25-13, 25-11 at the Culver High School gym.

Less than 24 hours later, the Bulldogs were back on the court. This time, they faced off with Western Christian for the first time this season. The teams were originally scheduled to play on Sept. 28, but COVID protocols within the Pioneers' program forced the schools to reschedule. It was another success for Culver, which battled its way to a 25-18, 25-12, 24-26, 25-13 victory on homecoming night at CHS.

On Monday, the Bulldogs came back to the court with a vengeance. The team left no doubt, pushing past Santiam in three sets, winning 25-15, 25-8, 25-16 on Senior Night.

"This has been a big push of games for us," said Carlson before Monday's match against Kennedy. "For us to have to two games on Thursday and Friday, and then go Monday-Tuesday, it's a lot of games. We had a great practice last week, though, and I think we really carried it over into how we played on Thursday and Friday."

"We played with a lot of energy," added Carlson, referring to one of the trademarks of this year's Culver volleyball team. The team plays every point with passion, screaming in celebration for every kill and gathering in support after every miscue.

In particular, Carlson highlighted a pair of seniors who have played their last matches in front of the Bulldog faithful.

"Lucy Louden was outstanding this past week, her and Emma Richards," said Carlson of his two senior outside hitters. "They really stepped up from a leadership perspective, with how they worked with the team and then came out and played really well."

It was not just Louden and Richards who have been impressing Carlson, of course.

PMG PHOTO: ANDY DIECKHOFF - Culver junior Hensley Wachter, right, has been one of the stabilizing forces on the team this year, and her passionate screams after emphatic kills have become a staple of the Bulldogs' home volleyball matches."Our whole case took a step from a maturity standpoint," the first-year coach added. "Our seniors played well. Our juniors — Kayden (Leeann), Hensley (Wachter) and Brooke (Bush) — played well and made some really high-level plays. Dylan Thomas is playing more of a role, too. I'm excited to see that growth."

With the team is back to its winning ways, Carlson emphasized that consistency is now the name of the game.

"If we can get them playing like that consistently," he said, "we're going to be playing our best volleyball going into the state tournament."

The Bulldogs had another match on Tuesday night at Colton; however, the results were not available at press time. That match has no bearing on Culver's seeding for the league playoffs, though.

With Monday's win over Santiam, the Bulldogs locked up the eastern division in the Tri-River Conference. This season, the TRC was split into two smaller divisions to reduce travel burdens. That worked in Culver's favor, as the two best records in the league belong to Salem Academy and Sheridan — both of which belong to the western division. Despite having the third-best record leaguewide, the Bulldogs will receive a bye into the second round of the Tri-River playoffs.

The Bulldogs will face whichever of the two first-round winners has the better Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). Then, if Culver wins that game, they will be headed to the state playoffs. But for the moment, after a late start to the season and a frantic finish at the end, the team can take a breath as they await word of who their next opponent will be.

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