Isaiah Branch-Boyle/Durango Herald
Isaiah Branch-Boyle/Durango Herald
Natalie Bulen’s goal was to play Division I volleyball.
Her work as Durango High School’s starting setter the last two seasons earned her the attention of Division II and III programs, as expected, but a club tournament in Las Vegas provided a bit of an out-of-the-blue opportunity, one Bulen couldn’t pass up.
It was there the reigning Southwestern League Player of the Year landed on the radar of Nevada-Las Vegas assistant coach Mashalla Farokhmanesh, who – despite not having a scholarship to offer – was interested in the 5-8 DHS alumna, and his interest eventually bubbled over to head coach Cindy Fredrick.
“I went to a recruitment showcase while I was in Vegas for a club tournament. After I got done that night with the showcase, the assistant coach from UNLV came up to me and told me he was going to watch me the rest of the weekend, and he was really interested in recruiting me. ... That weekend, I decided to pretty much go there,” Bulen said. “It all kind of fell into place within those three days.”
“I kind of expected something to come out of it, but I didn’t expect it to come that fast. ... They did a nice job with Natalie and nice job with us. Their follow-up with Natalie has been amazing,” David Bulen, Natalie’s dad, said.
The goal became reality, and Bulen soon will be off to UNLV to prepare for life as a volleyball player in the Mountain West Conference. She’s the second Demon in as many years to catch on with a Division I program; Sloan Lovett, who preceded Bulen as SWL Player of the Year, will be a sophomore at Sacramento State.
As a senior, Bulen was a statistical stalwart for the SWL-champion Demons. She led the conference with an average of 9.9 assists per set, 2.5 more than her closest competition. Bulen added 704 total assists, 191 digs, 29 blocks and 54 kills in helping Durango to yet another Class 4A state tournament berth.
But Bulen knows she has to go to another level to survive the Division I crucible and perhaps earn a scholarship by the time she’s a junior, yet another goal of hers. Of the Rebels’ recruits for this year, however, Bulen is the only setter, and UNLV returns just one setter from last year, senior-to-be Stephanie Thelen.
To prepare to play at the NCAA’s top level, Bulen sought advice from both Lovett and DHS assistant coach Erika Sansoni, who played Division I volleyball herself at New Mexico. She’s also worked on getting in peak volleyball condition with trainer Kyle Wishon as well as getting to as many open gyms as physically possible.
“I’ve been working out with him five times a week. He’s been pretty much kicking my butt to get into shape, so I feel really prepared at this point to go and play with the girls on the team,” said Bulen, who also thanked coaches Terene Foutz, Hali Groninger, Colleen Keresey and DHS head coach Robin Oliger for their assistance.
It’s that determination to improve, that commitment that Oliger said she thinks will make Bulen a great fit at the Division I level.
“Natalie is probably one of the most determined, headstrong ... players that I’ve coached, so that’s perfect for a setter, because you want your setter to be kind of a little bit edgy,” Oliger said.
“That’s what makes them good. They have to run the court. If they have the attitude to where they’re sensitive, it doesn’t work for them to be a setter.”
Bulen has a lot to prepare for and a lot to learn between now and UNLV’s season opener against Cal State Fullerton on Aug. 30. There’s getting used to the balance of classes and practice at a major university, adjusting to her courses in either business or hospitality management (her likely major choices), even getting used to Farokhmanesh’s preferance for calling out sets in his native tongue of Farsi.
But, for now, she’s just excited for the opportunity to prove herself on the big stage.
“I never really thought I was going to be able to have the chance to (play Division I) because we’re from a smaller club and a smaller area, and not that many people look at the smaller clubs. ... I was really, really happy when I found out I was going to be able to go play,” Bulen said.
Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file photo