Building a new team culture doesn't happen overnight. Sometimes it requires multiple seasons to take shape. The Culver softball team, now in its second year with head coach Carly Clark, sees this season as a major opportunity to build on that culture.
The Bulldogs return six players from last season, but also feature plenty of faces new to playing softball, though oddly none of them are freshmen. Both of their freshmen, Jenae Rhen and Kinzi Jagels, are veterans of the sport, having played extensively in youth softball leagues.
Of the others who are new to softball, some bring other athletic accolades to the diamond. Sophomores Mia Gamboa and Maddie Miller are all-league basketball and volleyball players, respectively. Sophomore Michelle Islas is a cheerleading team captain.
A couple girls are also transfer students, as well as others who simply came out this season to learn a new game. Clark held open gyms during the winter, and it was during this time that several girls' interests in playing softball piqued.
The success of Culver's season won't be judged based on wins and losses, but continuing to build a culture that stresses working hard and sportsmanship, and for the new players, to learn to play together in a sport that has a lot of moving pieces.
"It's nine people on the field and you have to be able to communicate," Clark said. "There's a lot of different things that they have to be able to do."
The learning curve will be steeper for some more than others, but they can all turn to Culver's three captains for guidance. Senior second baseman Laura Montes and senior utility player Chelsea Zacher, who figures to be on the mound a lot this season since pitcher Josi Harrison graduated, both return with playing experience.
Culver's main building block, sophomore all-league catcher Lorena Vasquez, is also back after being one of the team's best hitters and all-around knowledgeable players a year ago. Her insight on the field was particularly helpful for Clark in her first year as a head coach.
"I came in just trying to help the team out and she was learning to coach," Vasquez said.
Last year, Vasquez quickly jumped into a leadership role, in part because of her many years of experience playing softball. Clark recalls instances where Vasquez picked up on the tendencies of opposing batters from behind the plate and was able to relay defensive shifts to her teammates. Her willingness to lead right away as a freshman was rare.
"I've never seen a freshman come in and take that leadership (role) like she did at any level," Clark said. "She handled it with grace."
All three captains will play important parts in helping inexperienced players learn, though even Zacher and Montes, the Bulldogs' lone seniors, find themselves picking up wisdom from the younger Vasquez.
"Lorena is the most experienced in softball, so she's always teaching us things," Zacher said. "Even though Laura and I know some things, she's very good at helping us. So we take what we learn and try to help them."
The Bulldogs faced stiff competition throughout last season, particularly during their Special District 6 schedule, where Pilot Rock/Nixyaawii and Union/Cove would go on to finish first and second in the 2A/1A championship. Culver finished with a 6-20, 1-14 league record in 2016.
The schedule won't get any easier this season, but the Bulldogs are looking at the bigger picture. If they continue to build the program in a positive direction, they'll consider this season a success.
Culver will face Santiam on Saturday for an away doubleheader, with the first game beginning at noon.
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