When the Kennedy Trojans and Culver Bulldogs volleyball teams face off on Oct. 2, it will be a clash of titans. The two programs, which finished third and second, respectively, at last year's state championship tournament, have been volleyball powers for much of the last decade and are reuniting the Tri-River Conference for the first time in four years.
"That should be the game of the season to watch," Kennedy head coach Laura Beyer said when prognosticating on the state of the newly revamped Tri-River that lost three teams from 2017 and added five more this year. "A lot of it is an unknown, but I would expect we'd be a favorite along with Culver."
That wasn't always the case.
The story of the Kennedy Trojans' volleyball rivalry with the Culver Bulldogs dates back to 2005 when the two teams became league adversaries in the Tri-River Conference. Culver was making the transition from the Columbia River Conference, going from Eastern Oregon schools such as Heppner, Stanfield and Umatilla to the slightly closer teams in the Willamette Valley.
Neither team was flush with success at the time. The Trojans had won an impressive 44 games over a three-year period from 2005-07 — including the 2005 league title — but were unable to parlay their accomplishments in the regular season to post season success. Culver struggled for relevancy in its first years in the Tri-River, finishing at the bottom of the standings in 2005 and 2007.
But that all began to change around the turn of the decade. The Bulldogs gradually improved in the standings over a four-year period before winning their first conference title in 2011, beginning a streak of consecutive league championships that has lasted the past eight seasons. In that span, Culver has placed in the top five in the state tournament every year, making the state championship match three times and winning it all in 2012.
At around the same time, Kennedy, too, rose to prominence in the volleyball scene. The Trojans finished second to the Bulldogs in the 2011 league standings, but needed an extra year before joining Culver at the quarterfinal tournament in 2012.
Since then, the Trojans have been a steady presence in the elite eight, making it to the state quarterfinals in five of the past six seasons. Kennedy finished fourth in 2013, followed by back-to-back fifth-place finishes, losing to Culver directly in 2014. The Trojans missed the 2016 tournament, but rebounded last year with a third-place finish that was the best in program history.
Culver went back to the Columbia Basin Conference for the past four seasons, creating a vacuum in the Tri-River Conference that Kennedy filled to the tune of three conference titles. Now that the Bulldogs are back, the Trojans are not eager to cede their position at the top of the league.
Fortunately, Kennedy enters this season with its most stacked team in years.
"We have seven varsity returners, so we should have a strong core group coming back," Beyer said. "We've got both of our setters returning. It's going to be an exciting year."
Leading the charge are All-State honorees Hallie Sprauer at outside hitter, Hailey Arritola at libero and Sophia Carley at middle blocker. Senior all-conference hitters Tressa Riedman and Hannah Arritola went the way of graduation, but Beyer is hoping they left their mark that will continue to influence the next class of players coming up through the system.
"The seniors who graduated did a great job of mentoring these kids, so they've had really good role models," Beyer said. "They won two state championships, basketball and softball."
Beyer will call on senior Kalyssa Kleinschmit to move from right side hitter to outside hitter to help replace the lost production.
"I hate to take her away from the right side, because she's an extremely strong blocker, and we like her blocking their best hitter, but we have to go with what's going to score the most points and we need someone outside to fill in for those two outside hitters we lost," Beyer said.
All-Conference setter Ibeth Gomez returns for her junior season, and sophomores Kelsey Kleinschmit, Elise Suing and Ellie Cantu will be featured in expanded roles in their second year on the team.
In addition to regular games against Culver, the Trojans are looking to stack their schedule with as many talented teams as possible. Kennedy opened the season on Aug. 28 against the Salem Academy Crusaders, defeating last year's 3A state championship runners up 3-0 (25-8, 25-11, 25-17). The Trojans followed with a 3-1 win (25-19, 25-19, 16-25, 25-10), a rematch of last year's third-place game at the state tournament.
Kennedy's annual Oktoberfest tournament will feature Central Linn once again, along with St. Paul — another former league rival and a state powers in its right — and the defending 2A state champion from Washington, King's Way.
Kennedy will certainly have its hands full this season, but the girls coming to the net are all battle-tested, having gone through the ups and downs of post-season play in previous sports. Beyer is counting on that experience to pay off come November when the team is fighting for another trip to the quarterfinals.
"They've all experienced tough losses, but they've experienced tremendous wins," Beyer said. "I think that's going to really help us mentally come together to really gel as a team this year."
The Trojans open their league schedule this week with a trip to Santiam that was scheduled for Tuesday, followed by a home three-way match on Thursday against Gervais and Western Mennonite.
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