By Brian Rathbone • The Bulletin

REDMOND —

Seven times since 2013, a Central Oregon volleyball team has won the final game of the season and been crowned state champion. The area has grown accustomed to superb volleyball play year in and year out from the local high school programs. And the trend is continuing in 2019 with a couple of weeks remaining in the regular season.

As of Thursday afternoon, Summit and Bend were jostling for position in the top 10 of the Class 6A rankings, a year after making the jump to Oregon’s top classification. Ridgeview sat at No. 3 of the 5A standings, with Crook County not far behind at No. 5.

Sisters appears primed for another state title run with a 20-2 record and No. 4 state ranking in 4A. Culver, a perennial top-10 team in 2A, is once again in the top 10 in 2019.

Now, a new Central Oregon team has emerged, joining the ranks of other local volleyball powers: Central Christian.

“I’ve been so immersed in sports this year because it’s been more intense,” said Erin Wynne, the lone senior on the Tigers’ roster. “Thinking about my freshman and sophomore year, we didn’t have the same mentality that we have now.”

Not long ago, the Tigers were bottom feeders on the Class 1A volleyball landscape. In the first four seasons since joining the Mountain Valley League in 2014, Central Christian won just 10 matches while losing 46 with a 3-35 league record. During that span, the Tigers won just 29 sets while losing 151.

The turnaround at the small Redmond school started last season, when the Tigers won 16 matches, 10 against league opponents. Yet, the season ended without a playoff appearance.

A new coach brought in a new set of standards in 2019, including visions of playoff appearances and playing across town at Ridgeview High — the site of the 1A state championship — at season’s end.

“It took some time to change the culture a little bit. The first couple of games were rough. We continued to get better each and every day,” said first-year coach Mike Polk.

“That’s our goal is to get better every day. It’s been fun to watch the progress.”

Despite racking up wins early in the season, the concepts were not clicking right away. All seemed to make sense in a nonleague match on a Saturday against Camas Valley. According to junior Myka Delamarter, Camas Valley was ranked eighth while Central Christan was 16th when the two teams met in Redmond on Sept. 21.

The Tigers and Hornets slugged it out for five sets, with the underdogs scrapping out a 3-2 win, overcoming a marathon 39-37 loss in the second set to rally and win two of the final three sets. A program that was not accustomed to much success suddenly had a single-digit state ranking.

“That’s when I saw potential in this team,” Wynne said. “That win placed us at a higher ranking than them, which is something that I had never seen from this school before, which was really eye-opening for me.”

A better understanding of the game and new drills were also infused into the program. New assistant coach Barbie Unfried played college volleyball at Fairfield University in Connecticut before finishing her college career playing at Cal State Bakersfield.

“It totally boosted our confidence in how we wanted to come out this season, with the new knowledge of the coaches and them pushing us to our full abilities.” Delamarter said. “Our assistant played (NCAA Division I) volleyball so she brings that into our practices, and being such a small school makes such a difference.”

Since starting the season with a loss to Cove, Central Christian has not lost a non-tournament match (the Tigers are 1-1 in tournament play), winning 12 straight in the process — more wins than the program had from 2014 through 2017 combined. The Tigers have also won all nine of their league games. One more win and they match last year’s league total of 10.

“We had a good core group coming out of last season,” Polk said. “We’ve also been working on how to play as a team, team bonding and how we move on the court. That’s been something we’ve been really working hard on. Our goal is to play like a champion every day. It’s a new thought.”

With a returning nucleus of sophomore middle blocker Rilea Mills, Delamarter and sophomore setter Annika Poet, the Tigers are young, which has Polk giddy about the future of the program. But there is still plenty to accomplish this season.

Central Christian’s toughest tests of the season will come in its next two games, both on the road. The stretch starts with a top-10 matchup against Rogue Valley Adventist in Medford on Thursday night, followed by a trip to Klamath Falls to face perennial power Hosanna Christian on Tuesday.

“Rogue Valley is going to be a pivotal game for us,” Polk said. “It’s a four-hour trip, it’s a four-hour time that we have to mentally prepare for, but I think we are ready.”

Polk noted that Central Christian has never won a match against Hosanna Christian.

Wynne and Delamarter both know the struggles Central Christian has experienced against its upcoming opponents, especially Hosanna Christian, which has won by a combined score of 150-48 in the two programs’ last two meetings. And they know what kind of statement winning the next two matches would make for their upstart program.

“That is going to be all in our heads because we’ve lost so many times (to Hosanna),” Delamarter said. “If we come out on top this time that will show everyone else that we are here to win.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0307, brathbone@bendbulletin.com

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