By Bruce Sayler
It would be hard to imagine or remember a more epic volleyball match played in the Montana Tech HPER Complex than the NAIA playoffs first-round contest held there Saturday.
The five-set tug-of-war included four sets of extra serves before host Montana Tech emerged a 26-28, 25-19, 25-27, 28-26, 16-14 winner over Bushnell. (Stats)
“I think, individually, we did our jobs and it came together for us,” said 6-foot-3 senior middle hitter Sydney Parks of the Orediggers. “I think we kept our focus really well and came together as a team.”
Both she and head coach Brian Solomon said if they’d ever been involved in such a tight, intense marathon match before, it would’ve been certainly a rarity.
“Not for the last match of the season,” Solomon said. “Obviously, it was a match that was going to end the season for one team.”
The win booked a spot in the NAIA national playoffs, Nov. 30-Dec. 4 in Sioux City, Iowa. Bushnell, of Eugene, Oregon, ended its season with the loss, putting a period on a 21-8 campaign.
“The last time we went to nationals, in 2017, we played the No. 3 (-ranked) team in the nation that close, maybe,” Parks said. “That might have been this exciting.”
The Orediggers rose from a 10-5 deficit to win the third set, the tie-breaker, in a strong presentation of will.
The Beacons jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the set as Jessica Northcutt slammed a kill, a Montana Tech hit was too strong and missed the court, and Callie Wilkins served an ace that ricocheted off the Oredigger receiver. A hitting miscue, a tip into the net, ended the Bushnell run.
Montana Tech’s first offensive point in the run came after another Northcutt kill when Karina Mickelson belted a kill. The teams then played point-for-point several serves to a 12-8 difference that favored the Beacons.
Parks pasted a kill to gain serve for her team. Sarah Hopcroft went to the line and served a four-point run as Olivia Muir smacked a kill, Mickelson and Taylor Henley paired on a block, Henley fenced up another block and Muir mashed another kill. It gave the Orediggers their first lead of the tie-breaker, 13-12.
They needed two more points to win.
Payton Jones fired a kill for Bushnell to tie the score and then Muir nailed another kill. Jones answered with another of her own. The Beacons were then called for a double-hit, creating match point, and Montana Tech’s Maureen “Mo” Jessop then stuffed a floater that bounced from a muffed serve-receive on Bushnell’s side of the net. The Orediggers had won.
“We were down 10-5 in the last set and we showed a lot of resilience to keep our composure,” Solomon said. “We hung in there. ‘Livie’ (Muir) and Mo finished strong for us on the outside.”
Parks said Solomon keeping the team loose and not piling extra pressure on it during timeouts might have been important tactics.
“I think Brian is good at using timeouts to calm us, catch our breath,” she said. “He doesn’t usually say much in the timeouts. And, we have a few goofy people, who make us laugh. You’ve seen our dancers?”
Music blares through the gym during the timeouts and a couple or so of the Orediggers practice their dance steps during those breaks.
“We knew, as seniors (she, Mickelson and Emma Carvo) the only way we could come back (from the 10-5 deficit) was to keep our heads high and be confident,” Parks said, “and hope the other team falls at some point.”
The resilience Solomon referred to also related to overcoming some of Montana Tech’s own mistakes, and finding its strengths.
“We had 18 serving errors,” he said. “We couldn’t seem to get out of own way in serving. We really served poor for too many stretches. But, we also had 18 blocks and so we really came on in other areas and hung in there. Taylor and Sydney, in the middle, both hit .400.
“Those were a wild last three sets. There were wild bounces in the gym (shots pinballing through the rafters and across the ceiling and still being returned across the net, for example) and we played bonus points in four sets. We went over the limit in four sets.”
Either team might have swept, but neither could put together clinching or long serving runs.
Montana Tech held a narrow lead through most of the first game after going ahead 2-1 when a Bushnell shot veered wide. The Beacons stayed close and caught up at 12-all on a kill by Camille Guerrero. Ties and small leads kept the match close to 25-all when a Bushnell spike try sailed long. Jones and Parks traded kills, then Northcutt pounded a kill for the Beacons. A shot by Montana Tech missed wide of the court and Bushnell had won the first set, 28-26.
The Orediggers responded with a strong second-set effort. A Mickelson kill brought a 4-3 edge and Montana Tech built on it. It reached five points at 17-12 on a kill by Muir, survived a Beacon rally and got to set point at 24-19 on an ace by Jessop. A Bushnell attempt landed wide of the court and the Orediggers had squared the match score at a game apiece.
Bushnell left Eugene Friday morning and traveled 10 hours to Missoula before spending the night and continuing on to Butte Saturday morning. The Beacons were hardly fatigued, though.
They fell behind 20-15 after a Muir kill, then began a successful comeback. Chipping away at the deficit, Bushnell tied the score 23-all on a kill by power hitter Guerrero. A miss gave the edge back to the Orediggers before Guerrero tied the score again on a blast. Shay Coons clubbed a kill for the Beacons and Mickelson answered. Coons killed again before Bella Parque aced a serve and the Beacons had a 2-1 match lead with the 27-25 set win.
Montana Tech flipped the scene in the fourth set. Bushnell grabbed the early lead and held a 15-11 advantage after a Coons kill. The Orediggers scrapped back and caught up at 16-all as setter McKenna Kaelber tipped in a point. The teams were intensely close again with their last tie being at 26-all following a Jessop kill. Consecutive blocks by Parks and Jessop won the set for Montana Tech, 28-26, and brought on the fifth-set tie-breaker game.
“I thought their setter (Northern) played a tremendous match,” Solomon credited. “She kept them in a good rhythm and she also had 22 digs.”
The win sends Montana Tech to Sioux City with a 22-9 record.
Solomon ran the Orediggers through a practice Saturday morning prior to the match and the team then endured the five-setter to outlast their opponents. Happiness fought off weariness as the players celebrated their win.
“Adrenalin is pumping,” Parks acknowledged.
Five Orediggers reached double figures in kills as Kaelber effectively distributed the ball for a balanced attack. Muir led in kills with 18 while Jessop and Mickelson each hit 14, Parks notched 12 and Henley 10. Kaelber dished 59 assists. Hopcroft was the digs leader with 22 and Hudsyn DiBrito backed her with 10. Parks posted seven blocks and Henley registered six as they walled the middle against Bushnell attempts.
Hannah Oggerino, Logan Reed and Emma McMillan also contributed extensive playing time to the victory.
Coons and Guerrero finished with 14 kills apiece to lead the Beacons. Halle Neumann and Jones plastered 10 each. Northern put up 54 assists. Libero Callie Wilkins had 29 digs. Jones blocked five shots.