Butte Central sets sights on state volleyball championship

The Butte Central Maroons are designed for tournament play, said their head volleyball coach, Becky Hancock.

The theory will be tested beginning on Thursday when the BC girls play a noon match against Havre in the opening round of the state Class A tournament being played through Saturday at the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on the campus of Montana State University in Bozeman. Bracket

Therefore, Butte Central has designs on the championship.

“Depth is in our favor,” Hancock, who rotates a lot of players over the floor in any match, said. “We have experience with seven seniors. So, their leadership is there, too. We have a lot of leadership to pull this team together. They’re fun to watch. They’re an amazing group.”

The group consists of seniors Shawnee Hjelt, Teresa Piazzola, McKenzie Gallagher, Sierra Pica, Whitney McGree, Lacey McGree and Ryan Trudnowski, juniors Emily St. John, Corbyn Holm, Taylor Wahl, Mollie Peoples and Kaylee O’Herron, and sophomore Olivia Bolton.

The coaches are Hancock and assistants Brianna Dudley and Clarissa Stajcar.

“I feel very good going in,” Hancock said. “I didn’t care where we would be seeded. We’re capable of beating the other seven. It comes down to the willpower to get it done.”

The Maroons are going to the state tournament for only the second time in their volleyball history. The other trip came in 2012 when Hjelt, Piazzola, Pica and Lacey McGree were freshmen and Hancock was an assistant coach. They did not place in the top three, but the program had become pretty good. Still, the state tournament experience was brand new.

“It’s a really cool atmosphere,” Hancock said, talking about how four matches, one in each enrollment classification, are all taking place at the same time in the big arena. “I think (reaching state, and as a second seed) it means we truly are one of the top programs in the state.”

A first-round win would lift BC into a second-round match later on Thursday, 6 p.m., against the winner of the Belgrade-Whitefish competition that will open the tourney. A loss would drop Butte Central into the consolation bracket, starting with a 10 a.m. Friday match. Any loss in the early rounds means a busy Friday to compete to stay in the running for a championship or other trophy.

The Maroons are 16-3 for the season with all three losses having come at the hands of Corvallis. One was in the regular season at Corvallis and two were suffered last weekend at the Western A Super Divisional tournament in Hamilton. The BC girls swept Corvallis in Butte. They went five games with them in Corvallis, lost the winners’ bracket semifinal to the Blue Devils in Hamilton, came back to beat Columbia Falls in the consolation semi, then fell in five to Corvallis in the championship match. Butte Central played 14 sets on the last day of the tourney, taking the Blue Devils to the wire in the 14th, which was a 15-13 outcome.

“If we do what we did in Hamilton and capitalize on a couple more things, we’ll be amazing,” Hancock said. “Everybody was on. “After playing six hours of volleyball, the girls got into that championship match. And those girls went full out. They didn’t want to settle for second.

“The girls are doing things really well, right now. They’re competitive and gave great competition to be a part of the state tournament. We need to go in focused on great team play.”

Belgrade is the defending champion, won the East-Central Super Divisional last weekend, and is expected to be well-supported, playing almost in its own backyard. The Panthers will launch the tourney against Whitefish in the Thursday 10 a.m. match. The Maroons then will play Havre at noon, followed by Billings Central against Columbia Falls at 2 p.m. and Corvallis versus Hardin at 4. The winners will continue to the Friday later matches, at 6 and 8 p.m.

Butte Central has not played Billings Central or Hardin at all, but swept Belgrade in two non-conference matches, and came out on the short end of a 25-22 set against Havre in pool play at the Belgrade Invitational early in the season. Pool play results do not count on team records.

The Maroons are 1-3 in matches with Corvallis, and 1-0 against both Columbia Falls and Whitefish.

Belgrade won the other Super Divisional while Billings Central was the runner-up, Havre placed third and Hardin fourth.

“Havre is a scrappy team that plays fast,” Hancock said. “You can’t really tell much, though, from playing just one set against them. Belgrade is playing some of its best ball, too.

“We have to do what we do well and not overthink things.”

What the BC club does well is serve, and play defense at the net, and serve, and hit, and serve receive, and serve, and play floor defense, and serve. St. John, Piazzola, Gallagher, Holm, Wahl and Peoples have all often unfurled long serving runs that have sent opponents back on their heels trying to dig themselves out of trouble.

“Our serving has been on and we need it continue to get big leads,” Hancock said. “When we are serving well, our passing is good, our setting is good and our hitting is good. It all starts with the serve. So when we’re serving is on, we do very well.”

Having to work against such good servers in practice has likely turned the Butte Central players into good serve receivers, too. The libero, Peoples, has taken a large percentage of the serves from opponents, while Holm, Wahl, Piazzola and Hjelt are al also usually in the mix. St. John, more times than not, registers all of the assists, meaning the passing from the serve receivers has been in synch much of the time. St. John’s sets are good, too, leaving the ball hanging for the big shots by Piazzola, Holm, Pica, Lacey McGree and Trudnowski. Piazzola unleashes a lot of power on her boomers while Pica provides the Maroons with the rare left-handed hitter belting from the left side. It helps allow for the team to play the edges and not always have to funnel everything more toward midcourt.

“Corbyn Holm played some of her best volleyball in Hamilton and helped us a lot,” Hancock said. “And Sierra Pica is playing some of her best, too. Lacey has been really consistent for us at the net on defense and Ryan is playing well. When the front row ls really picking up their game that really leads us into our offense, and then Emily, the setter, is able to distribute ball to the hitters.”

Peoples, Holm, St. John and Wahl  are usually the digs leaders with Gallagher joining in while on her serving rotation. Holm and Piazzola can both provide some back-row offense.

“They’re eager to learn, too,” Hancock said. “They are always looking for constructive criticism, even though they don’t always want to see it or hear from me. But, I know they really do want it.

“They want their (state championship) banner on the wall (at the Maroon Activities Center) and are pushing themselves outside their comfort zones. They’re wanting to learn and to get better than they are.”

With all the victories accomplished, it is still a recent loss that has given Hancock utmost confidence in the BC team.

“We know that come tournament time, all of the teams are playing even better,” the coach said. “In Hamilton was some of the best volleyball I’ve seen played all year. We came up short, but I have no doubt some great things are to come.

“This is a special group. They’re fun girls and I think that has contributed to their success. That kind of chemistry doesn’t come around much. Hopefully, we can capitalize on it. If the girls show up to play, they will do great things. That’s for sure. They can do something special at the state tournament.”