Tiny town, but BIG TALENT
By Grant Lucas
By no means is Culver a metropolis. Far from it — in every sense. An exit off U.S. Highway 97 just south of Madras guides you a few miles west to the small farming community. After weaving past ranches and open fields, you enter a peaceful town of some 1,300 residents. There is no buzz of traffic. No downtown overrun by tourists. Only this tiny plot of land, less than one-tenth of a square mile, devoted to Culver’s high, middle and elementary schools.
Surrounding the town are fields of alfalfa, grains and potatoes. Yet there is another crop that has become prosperous in a volleyball plantation. In the Portland area there are traditional powerhouses Jesuit, Central Catholic and Clackamas. Here in Central Oregon there are championship factory Crook County and rising powers Bend High, Summit and Sisters. But in the intimate Culver gym, one of the most successful Oregon high school volleyball programs in recent history has been cultivated.
Over the past five years, no other Class 2A program has reached the state tournament as many times as Culver, which has advanced to the final site in each of those seasons. No other program has won as many state trophies (five) during that time as Culver. Only 6A Jesuit, 4A Crook County and 3A Santiam Christian — all acclaimed volleyball powers — have placed in the top four at state as many times as Culver since 2011.
“That just gave me goose bumps,” Bulldogs coach Randi Viggiano says upon hearing the elite list of programs that now includes Culver.
Before Viggiano took over at Culver in 2010, the Bulldogs were slumping. They won just two matches in 2006 and were last in the Tri-River Conference. They were seventh in league play in 2007, last in 2008 and fifth in 2009. During her interview with Culver, Viggiano recalls, she was asked what goals she had for the program within the following year and within five years. Her answer to both questions was the same: Win a state title.
It did not take long for Viggiano to deliver on those goals.
The Bulldogs made the state playoffs in her first season and advanced to the quarterfinals in 2011 — the program’s first such appearance since 2002. The next season, in front of a raucous crowd at Redmond’s Ridgeview High filled with Culver orange, the Bulldogs defeated the defending state champion Days Creek to claim their first state title since 1987. Between 2011 and 2015, Culver won five trophies at the state tournament. Between 1987 and 2010, the Bulldogs had won three. Looking back now, Viggiano says she never planned on turning around the program — and developing it into a volleyball giant — so quickly. She was unsure what exactly she was getting herself into, she recounts.
Viggiano played at McNary High, a fairly successful volleyball program in Keizer when she played between 1996-99. She coached for three years under Rosie Honl at Crook County and celebrated three of the Cowgirls’ eight straight state championships that were won between 2006 and 2013. At each stop, Viggiano says, the expectation was to win. At Culver, she says, she heard how Culver girls teams do not know how to win. That just motivated her to begin the legacy that has continued today.
“I don’t know any other way but to have that expectation,” Viggiano says. “Even that first year (with Culver), are we going to go out and win a state title? No, but should we dream it? Absolutely. Why not set our goals high and don’t stop until we get there?”
Viggiano, noting the program’s turnaround is due to constant focus on fundamentals and improved feeder programs, frequently uses terms such as “buy-in” and “commitment” when speaking of Culver volleyball. That may be coachspeak, but the words apply at Culver. Take, for example, senior middle blocker Catylynn Duff, who remembers being in the high school’s stands watching former all-state players Shealene Little and Gabrielle Alley begin laying the foundation for this Bulldogs program in 2011 and 2012, “just dreaming about being them, playing at that level.”
“You get that influence, you get that drive, to be what they are,” Duff says. “In middle school, that’s all I thought about was being as good as them. As a player, you always look up to them and always strive to be like them on the court.”
The reins continued to be passed down, from Little and Alley, standouts on that 2012 state title team, to Lynze Schonneker and Emma Hoke, captains of last year’s Culver squad that took second, and again to the likes of Margie Beeler and Jenny Vega, both voted all-state in 2015. As gaping as the vacancies seemed when seniors graduated — such as the departure of Little, a two-time 2A player of the year — the Bulldogs filled them, seemingly with ease.
“It was a lot about watching our elders and seeing how they play and feeding off of what they do,” says Beeler, a senior setter, “knowing that we have to step up to be like they were. We don’t want to disappoint.”
“We have worked really hard to create a really competitive atmosphere within our own program,” Viggiano explains, “so that, every day, they’re competing against some of the best hitters in the state, they’re digging and passing the best servers. They’re happy to beat each other and create that competitive atmosphere so that when they go to those big games, they feel prepared because they do it in practice every day.”
Other than volleyball, Culver boasts no other team state championships in girls sports. Perhaps that is the basis for that “Culver does not know how to win” talk Viggiano recalls. But nobody is going to tell Viggiano that the Bulldogs cannot play at a high level.
It is not only for themselves that the Bulldogs aspire to continue this legacy. It is for their community. Without its support, Beeler says, “we wouldn’t have the big crowds here that bring energy to us.” Duff proclaims Culver is one of the strongest supporting communities in the state. The seeds of volleyball success were planted when Viggiano took over six years ago. They took root when Little and Alley carried Culver to the state tournament for the first time in nine years and produced the program’s first state title since 1987. They sprouted with back-to-back third-place finishes in 2013 and 2014. They are blossoming now, a year after taking second at state, as the Bulldogs strive for the program’s third state championship.
“We don’t want to be that group that ruins it,” Beeler says, “that stops going to state every year. We work extra hard to be able to continue that.”