NORTH BEND — The difference a year makes.
A season ago the North Bend volleyball team was welcomed into the 5A classification with a two-win season that saw the Bulldogs finish 0-16 in league play. But that was then — a whole year ago.
Now with a team that is led by an experienced group of four seniors — Chelsea Howard, Kait Randle, Abbie Kirby and Isabelle Peck — and filled out by five sophomores and a junior, it’s a different story.
“This year before the season, I was really focused on telling the girls that we have nothing to lose,” said Randle. "Every other team is ranked above us in this whole entire state. We, literally, can not go any farther down. So work every game and try to continue to get better.”
After a 6-4 start, the 13th-ranked Bulldogs now prepare for the second half of the league season that begins tonight at Willamette. At 4-4 in the Midwestern League, North Bend sits in the middle of the league at fifth place — the top four teams receive an automatic playoff bid.
“Last year we were just worried about playing so (this year) it’s like, oh my gosh, we’re worried about winning and how we can win and what type of volleyball we can play,” said an excited Randle. “I didn’t expect that to happen.”
Entering last season, the changes of a new classification and league clouded the team’s expectations from the start. Traveling to farther locations to take on new teams that were believed to be playing a higher level of volleyball, North Bend was in its own head before taking the court.
“I think last year we really sold ourselves short because we had this idea of what it was going to be and we just kind of went in with the mindset that we were going to lose and that’s what happened,” said Kirby.
This self-fulfilling prophecy went along with other worries and frustrations from the team. There was the fact that no one on North Bend’s roster was above 5-foot-10 (still true for this season), question’s about motivation and some embarrassment as losses piled up.
But even in the worst moments of the season — including being beat in straight sets 11 times in league — there was still an air of positivity and levity that made its way into the locker room.
“I think throughout it all it was, ‘Hey, we keep getting better.’ This game was better than the game before and that was really what we had to focus on,” said North Bend head coach Jessica Randle. “We had to focus on, ‘Hey, we didn’t miss any serves.’ Or ‘hey, our passing percentage was 68 percent instead of 52 percent.’ Whatever it was it had to be little wins.”
Even before her team was ready for this current season, Randle was confident that these past small victories would result in a season in which the Bulldogs would be able to compete in the Midwestern League.
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But for the seniors on the team, many of whom came into the season looking for their first league win since playing meaningful time on varsity, there was a different hurdle to clear.
“Our goal was just kind of to take one step at a time and the goal for the season, when we started, was to win one game,” said Kirby. “And we’ve obviously come quite a ways since that which is really, really exciting to be in this place.”
The offseason quickly transitioned from open gyms to team camp to tryouts to league matches. With the added twist to the season that the North Bend gym would not be available due to a leak from the roof, the Bulldogs were off and running from the middle school.
In a one-game non-league schedule before the start of the Midwestern League, North Bend put together a five-set win over Siuslaw. With a win under their belt, now the Bulldogs were confident and looking for more.
“That Siuslaw game really kicked in that we can do it, we got it,” said Peck, the team's libero. “Every day we’re going to come to practice and work hard. And in games, it’s just another team on the other side of the court. I like to think of it as it’s just another team that we’re practicing against where points matter in this situation.”
The wins kept coming as North Bend won five of its first six games of the season. With the seniors as the anchor to the team, the emergence of sophomores Olivia Knutson, Mya Massey and Emily West have been a big positive for the Bulldogs as they fit in to the team’s identity.
“We have some really good sophomores and they are really positive so that was also a big help, having them around and help boost our morale,” Howard, who has become North Bend's top hitter in her senior season. “We have just a way better group dynamic this year and we were all able to just work together really well.”
With a coachable team that has complete buy-in to what they are doing, head coach Randle is excited for the chess match that comes with the second-half of league play. Having seen each league opponent and getting another crack at every team, she is prepared for her team to play both scrappy and smart with the same goal in mind.
“We’re going to find a way to win,” said Randle. “I think with the heart of this team, we’re going to find a way to win quite a few more games.”
And after a winless season and measured expectations from the team for this year, the seniors are looking to soak in every minute of this journey.
“No matter what the outcome is,” said Kirby, “I hope that we are proud of ourselves because we really have come so far.”