By Bruce Sayler
Volleyball would seem to be a fast-enough sport, but Montana Western and Montana Tech seemed to have sped it up even more in their tilt Tuesday night.
The homestanding Orediggers won 25-23, 25-27, 25-20, 25-15 in the Frontier Conference playoffs quarterfinals match in the Montana Tech HPER Complex. (Stats)
Sets seemed fewer, possessions less structured and more passes maybe skipped as it appeared the Bulldogs went to a whack-a-ball freestyle attack, perhaps, with the intention of scoring before Montana Tech could fence up its vaunted block.
The Orediggers were up to the challenge. They still totaled 14 blocks.
“It was fast-paced,” Montana Tech head coach Brian Solomon agreed. “Both teams played really hard and Western is so improved from the last times we’ve played them.
“Those last two games, though, our blocking went really well and I think that was the key. Defensively, our players did a nice job the last couple of sets.”
The overall result was nice enough to send the Orediggers on to the semifinals against Rocky Mountain Thursday at 7 p.m. in Billings. The 18-3 Bears drew a bye through the quarterfinals and is matched against the highest remaining seed from the quarterfinal round. The fourth-seeded Orediggers became that team when sixth-seeded Montana State-Northern stunned third-seeded Carroll in Tuesday’s round. Northern will play top-seeded Providence of Great Falls in the semis.
Montana Tech goes into the semifinals with a 9-10 record.
“Points never come easy this late in the season,” Solomon said of the longish rallies that centered Tuesday’s match at Montana Tech. “The last three sets, there were a lot of (shot) attempts by both teams. Both teams pushed 50.”
The Orediggers jumped out to a 3-0 start in the first game as Sydney Parks nailed the first kill and Karina Mickelson mashed the next two. Morgan Stenger then scored one for Montana Western and the Bulldogs had joined the fray.
Six lead changes and 15 ties ensued until a super save by a belly-sliding McKenna Kaelber, Montana Tech setter, started a possession that ended in a Mickelson kill. It made for set point, 24-23, and prefaced the win when a tip try be Stenger landed wide of the side border.
The second game was even closer. Montana Tech did enjoy a 13-8 command after Mickelson stuffed a block. However, the Bulldogs caught up and tied the score at 14-all on a block by Abby Morgan. So, nine ties and four lead changes followed. The eighth tie came at set point when Mickelson buried a kill for a 24-23 lead only for Stenger to answer in like and force extra serves.
Stenger popped a tip into an open space for a Western edge, but a miss-hit by Bulldog Emmah Peterson gave Montana Tech a point. The score was tied at 25-all. Stenger starched a kill for another set point and Montana Western finished the set on an ace by McKenna Fink.
The Montana Tech defense then bucked up and became even more stingy. The Orediggers and Bulldogs battled fairly evenly the first few side-outs of the third game before Montana Tech broke a 5-all tie on a block by Taylor Henley. Montana Western stayed close, but the Orediggers stayed ahead. A block by Megan Benton gave them set point at 24-19. After Stenger stuck another kill for the Bulldogs, Benton finished the set with a kill she sliced diagonally through the left third of the Western alignment.
Montana Tech bossed the fourth game. Serving runs by Hannah Oggerino and Emma Carvo helped the Orediggers open a 15-4 command behind the strong play of Parks, Henley, Benton, Mickelson and Maureen Jessop at the net. The Bulldogs seemed to tire after a short comeback. They gave up match point at 24-14 to Henley on a stuff block. They scored on a shot Jessop hit just a little too far. Jessop then ended the match with a tip that evaded the Montana Western defense.
“The 14 blocks was where we needed to be,” Solomon said. “We’ve improved in that area the last couple of weeks. Our middles, our blockers all played really well.”
Mickelson led the team in kills with 17 and Jessop finished with 11. Kaelber had 45 assists. She and Oggerino each belted a pair of aces. Oggerino, the libero, also had a big night on the floor defense with 30 digs. Kaelber finished with 14 digs, Sarah Hopcroft with 11 and Jessop with 10. Parks paced the defense at the net with seven blocks while Henley and Benton had five apiece and Kaelber posted four.
Montana Western ended its season with a 3-16 mark. It was led in its finale by Stenger with 11 kills, and Peterson and Kaitlyn White with 10 each. Setter Abbey Schwager dished 41 assists. Libero Tannah Sellers came up with a team-high 22 digs, and was backed in the numbers by Morgan Kirch with 17, Cady Siemion with 16 and Schwager with 11. The team registered five blocks.