PENDLETON — In 2016, the Hood River Valley Eagles controlled the Columbia River Conference, winning matches with dominance and claiming the league title with a three-game cushion over Pendleton.
This year, though, the CRC race is shaping up to be a runaway for the Buckaroos.
Through one round of league play, Pendleton is a perfect 3-0 and has won nine of 10 total sets played, including Thursday night’s dominant 3-0 victory over the Hermiston Bulldogs at Warberg Court. It’s a remarkable turnaround for the same core of Pendleton (7-0, 3-0 CRC) players that began league play 0-4 last year, but the Buckaroos’ are having fun on the court this year and are reaping the benefits.
“It’s an absolute blast for us because we’ve been playing with eachother for so long that we’ve finally figured it out,” Pendleton senior Maureen Davies said afterwards. “We’re starting off how we finished last year and we’re already in our groove.”
Pendleton’s vast amount of varsity experience within the 12 players on its roster is maybe the biggest reason for the turnaround, and it was also a big reason for the commanding victory over the inexperienced Bulldogs (2-8, 0-3) on Thursday. Pendleton’s team is made up of eight seniors and four juniors and have numerous two- and three-year varsity players, while Hermiston has just two players with prior varsity experience and nine newcomers — including three sophomores and one freshman.
The two experience levels showed throughout the match, which Pendleton won 25-12, 25-9, 25-13. Pendleton rebounded from a somewhat-shaky victory over The Dalles and played a clean game and overpowered their rival Bulldogs.
“It felt really good to just come back, get up on our toes and figure it out tonight,” Davies said. “We worked a lot yesterday in practice on what we needed to do so that we would be prepared for today and I feel that we have a lot more want want when you’re going against your rival team and it really worked out for us.”
Hermiston’s youth and inexperience was obvious at times, with numerous hitting and service errors, inaccurate passes and miscommunication that led to numerous points for the Buckaroos. But in the midst of all that, the Bulldogs showed their potential as well. Junior Sophia Streeter used her height to take away hitting lanes at the net and led the team with four kills. Sophomore libero Halee Stubbs tallied a few big-time digs and led the team with 10 digs overall. Meanwhile, sophomore Emma Combes and juniors Scout Reagan and Ireland McDonough flashed some power in their right hitting arms.
“A lot of these girls haven’t ever known how to win at a high level, never had to be put in that position where it’s high stakes and have to fight through the pressure and the stress and to also stay calm, which is difficult,” Hermiston coach Amy Dyck said of her team. “We’re asking a lot of maturity from some young players and they’re getting there. They’re working really hard and we’re hoping eventually our ability to overcome adversity catches up to our skill level and I think when that happens, we’ll be in pretty good shape.”
Hermiston played Pendleton very tough right out of the gates in the first set, even taking a 6-5 lead at one point after a serving ace by McDonough. But from that point on, Pendleton was in control. The Buckaroos’ offensive attack was spread out again on Thursday, with Rylee Gentner and Elli Nirschl each leading the team with five kills, Kalan McGlothan tallying four and Davies had three — the last of which was a thundering spike that clinched the third-set victory.
Each player also recorded at least two blocks apiece, with McGlothan leading with three. Senior setter Lauren Richards had another strong game in the middle with 16 assists.
“We’re continuing to progress and that’s what we like to see,” Pendleton coach Amanda Lapp said. “Last year we looked at things from the beginning to the end of the season to see how much we progressed and in this short round of league play we’re already seeing that and it’s nice to see this early.”
The Buckaroos and Bulldogs will both get good tests this weekend as Pendleton heads to Oregon City for a tournament and Hermiston heads to Tacoma, Washington for a tournament. For Dyck and her Bulldogs, she doesn’t want to see her team play tentative against some bigger competition and instead is encouraging her team to take plenty of risks and learn what it takes to play at a high level.
“It’s a good opportunity for us to try different things in an environment where it’s okay to mess up and fail,” Dyck said. “We’ve been encouraging them to not be afraid of failure and try to step out of their comfort zone and be willing to make that progress so this week will be huge for us.”
And for the Buckaroos, Lapp wants to see her team take the same intensity that they bring the court for the normal evening games and bring it each time they step on the court.
“We’re going to see some bigger teams down there,” Lapp said, “and I think it’ll be a really good learning experience for all of us. We can kind of judge where we’re at and how much we can grit things out and where we’re going to end up.”
Contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839. Follow him on Twitter @ByEricSinger.