By Bruce Sayler
Lessons have been taught and now the tests will be given as the Frontier Conference volleyball collection enters the postseason. An automatic national bid is the grand prize for the winner of the tournament that will be held Friday and Saturday at Carroll College’s P.E. Center in Helena.
The ones with the shinier records will also be hoping to impress selectors that will fill out the national NAIA tournament field for rounds of games in a bracket that goes into effect next week.
Montana Tech has the first day off. The 15th-ranked Orediggers are the No. 1 seed in the seven-team conference tournament, which will be contested in single-elimination format. Therefore, Montana Tech has a first-round bye by virtue of its 10-2 conference record accomplished through the regular season.
So, the Orediggers (20-8 overall) are already advanced to the 11 a.m. semifinal match against what will be the lowest remaining seed.
First-round matches Friday will send fourth-seeded University of Providence (6-6, 20-9) against fifth-seeded Lewis-Clark State (5-7, 10-13) at 2 p.m.; second-seeded Rocky Mountain (9-3, 21-10), which is ranked No. 23 nationally, against seventh-seeded Montana Western (1-11, 9-16) at 5 p.m.; and third-seeded Carroll (8-4, 15-11), against sixth-seeded Montana State-Northern (3-9, 9-17) at 7 p.m.
It’s single-elimination, so as for losses, it’s one and done.
Montana Tech’s Saturday semifinal will be followed by one at 1 p.m. that will match the other two remaining teams. The winners will play for the championship at 7 p.m.
Montana Tech wrapped up its first outright Frontier Conference volleyball regular-season championship in 27 years with a three-set sweep over MSU-Northern last Saturday in the Orediggers’ HPER Complex.
“We have a lot of work to do to get back to where we were last year,” head coach Brian Solomon said, referring to Montana Tech’s national tourney participation garnered through at-large entry and an early-round win.
Good hitting led the Orediggers to this year’s Frontier Conference season title with Solomon at the controls. Five Montana Tech pounders are ranked among the top 20 in the league. Senior transfer Angela Molesworth, a 6-foot-2 middle blocker, leads the Montana Tech brigade with an even 300 kills, tied for third-best in the conference. Her total is five more than Ukrainian Masha Korol has scored for the Orediggers. The others in the top 20 are sophomore Gena McMillen, 246; senior Nicole Peacock, 229; and senior Haley Druyvestein, 199.
The Orediggers also have four of the league’s assists leader as setter Tori Chelini ranks third in the conference with 674. However, she did not play in the sweep over Northern. Freshman setter Kamaile Moody has 505 assists, libero Sabrina Hopcroft has 51 and backup setter/serving specialist Hannah Liss has 46.
Serving has been a hot weapon for Montana Tech. The Orediggers have gotten the jump on a lot of opponents with that first missile sent over the net in any rally. Their leaders rank one-two in the league in aces with Liss owning a big lead with 59. Chelini is second with 37. Three more Orediggers are in the top 10 with McMillen having 34, Hopcroft 26 and Peacock 24.
The block was inconsistent at times early in the season but recovered to play a large part in the Orediggers snagging of the conference title. The 6-1 Druyvestein proved to be the best in the Frontier with her 125 blocks, tops in the league. Heather Thompson totaled 80 for the Orediggers, ninth in the conference. Peacock, Korol and Molesworth all finished among the top 20.
Hopcroft scooped 526 digs to pace Montana Tech and rank third in the Frontier. McMillen has her team’s next highest total with 286 ro tank 11th. Peacock, with 252 for 16th place, is Montana Tech’s only other digger in the top 20.
Solomon picked up his 100th win at the helm of the Orediggers earlier in the season and goes into the tourney with 107 wins and expressed gratitude for the program helping to reach the milestone.
Brent Lewis is UM Western’s second-year head coach and looking to jumble the bracket. Leading the Bulldogs’ chances for upset are hitter Kelsey Potter, setter McKenna Fink, server Jessica Weber, and libero Dylan Fowler, the Frontier leader in digs with 605.
Big-hitting Rocky Mountain has the league kills leader in Olivia L’Ami with 321 while both Hailey Copinga and Daniela Russell rank in the top 10. Bears setter Natalie Hilderman is No. 1 in assists with 1,101. She is also their top server. Copinga, Sydney Matheny and Timi Severson fence a tough blocking wall, and libero Holland Fergerson is No. 2 behind Fowler in digs. Laurie Kelly is in her 10th year directing the good RMC program.
Butte native Maureen “Mo” (Tutty) Boyle continues to field strong entries for Carroll. The reigning league Coach of the Year is in her 13th year in the position and brings the defending tournament champion Saints to the P.E. Center court. The Saints are led by hitters Holly Morehouse and Brielle Bumgarner, setter Rayna Pilgeram (second in the league in assists, 940), Catherine Sloan and Pilgeram at the service line, Bumgarner on the block, and Ayla Carpenter’s floor defense.
Providence — formerly known as the Univeristy of Great Falls — is also headed by a veteran coach. Arunas Duda is in his 14th year leading the program. His stars include Sydney Andersen, second in the Frontier in kills with 301; setter Dani Norling; acer Emily Stoker, 36 aces for third-best in the league; fellow server Olivia Snead; and Dillon prep grad Josee Pendleton on net defense with a conference second-best 118 blocks.
Latoya Harris-Alexander is in her sixth year as the head coach at Lewis-Clark State. The Warriors’ leaders include hitter Rachel Gregg, setter Lauren West, blocker Justina Cota Culp and libero Luana Thompson.
Butte High grad Hannah Amtmann totaled 378 total digs as the Montana State-Northern libero this season. The total was No. 5 in the Frontier Conference. Cassie Krueger led the Skylights in kills with 300, tying Molesworth for third in the department. Shania Neubauer and Hailey Warren split the setting duties for Northern and Krueger is the team’s most lethal server. Timi Severson is the blocks leader Rose Obunaga is finishing her first season as Northern’s head coach.
Montana Tech’s two losses in the conference season were to Carroll and Providence.
The NAIA National Tournament is scheduled for Nov. 28-Dec. 2 in Sioux City, Iowa.