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Plenty of hard hitters are back for the Bulldogs with a return to state in sight

PIONEER FILE PHOTO - Kayden Benningfield goes up for a block last fall for the Bulldogs. She led the squad in blocks last year and will be counted upon to be dominant in the middle again this season.
After returning to the state playoffs for the first time since 2018, the senior-heavy volleyball team at Culver High School is looking to make its way back to the postseason in 2022.

The Bulldogs will have to figure out life without starters Lucy Louden, Emma Richards and Hali-Ann Soderstrom, as well as reserves Lindsey Lamb and Sage Scott, after each of these players graduated this past June. However, Culver will be able to rely on six seniors — most of whom saw extensive playing time last year — as the team prepares for the new season.

With Louden and Richards gone, the Bulldogs have a lot of production to replace in the outside hitting department. Both players received all-league honors last season, with Louden making the all-district first team and Richards earning all-league honorable mention. Meanwhile, Soderstrom leaves behind a void at the libero position.

Brooke Bush will likely be back as the team's primary setter, a role she thrived in last season. In fact, she received the highest postseason accolades of any returning Bulldog, making the all-league second team in 2021. Bush is also one of Culver's most dangerous servers, alongside fellow senior Shanti Rosales. Rosales will likely rotate in for serves and to provide good defense and passing from the back line.

Culver will remain strong up the middle with 6-foot-1 Kayden Benningfield taking the primary blocker position. Benningfield made the All-Tri River Conference third team a year ago after leading the Bulldogs in blocks and delivering the kill that clinched the playoffs during the Bulldogs' district tournament win over Sheridan on Oct. 20.

PIONEER FILE PHOTO - Brooke Bush was the Bulldogs' lead setter and top server last season. Bush was a second team all-leaguer in 2021 and is a key returnee for this year's squad.
It is likely that Hensley Wachter — owner of the team's most vicious spike — will play more on the outside than in the middle, but she's versatile enough to do both at a high level. A loud, unmistakable presence every time she's on the floor, Wachter was an honorable mention all-leaguer last year.

Madison Constantine saw some time at libero last season, so she seems a reasonable choice to take up the mantel from the departed Soderstrom. Keep an eye on junior Dylan Thomas in this spot, too, though she may be deployed more for hitting depth.

Rounding out the senior class, Gracie Mendoza did not hit the floor much last year, but the 5-foot-6 senior is a vocal presence from the bench and has the size to be an outside hitter. Other returning varsity players include rising juniors Haylee Carroll and Teal Nelson. To fill out the varsity roster, look for some of last year's JV squad to get the call-up from head coach Alex Carlson this season.

According to the most recent version of the schedule, Culver's 2022 campaign begins Saturday, Sept. 3, with the East Vs. West Tournament at Heppner High School. The Bulldogs are slated to play Weston-McEwen in the opener of the weekend tourney. Those two teams will meet again the following week on Saturday, Sept. 10, as the Bulldogs play a road double-header against Stanfield High School and then against Weston-McEwen.

Culver does not currently have a non-league home game on the schedule; as it stands, the first game at CHS will come on Thursday, Sept. 15, against the defending state champions, Salem Academy.

As for changes to the league roster, the Tri-River Conference added a few teams via conference realignment, while also bidding farewell to Sheridan. In addition to Chemawa returning to the court after not fielding a team last season, the Tri-River added Blanchet Catholic, Regis and Willamina.

Culver was easily one of the three best teams in the league last year. Now, even though Salem Academy will be the favorite coming into the season, the Bulldogs look poised to return to the playoffs in 2022.

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