By Bruce Sayler
“Excited” was easily the word that came up most when Butte High head volleyball coach Jeni Hope talked about her feelings and the Bulldogs’ feelings regarding head to the state Class AA tournament.
The tournament will be held simultaneously with the Class A, Class B and Class C meets in the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on the Montana State University campus, Thursday through Saturday. Butte High, appearing in the state tournament for the first time in 13 years and in Hope’s second year at the helm, will play Eastern Conference champion C.M. Russell High of Great Falls at 2 p.m. on Thursday in the first round. (Bracket)
Winners of first-round matches will advance to Thursday evening quarterfinals and the losers will drop into the Friday morning elimination round. A Butte High win would have the Bulldogs playing at 8 p.m. Thursday, a loss would send them to a noon, Friday match.
Butte High has one state volleyball championship in its history and it was won in 1994, when the sport was played in the winter in Montana. Butte Central has qualified for the state Class A tournament, marking the first time both teams from The Mining City have advanced to the Bozeman state tourney venue.
“We’re just excited to get there,” Hope said Tuesday evening. “We have three days of practice this week before we go and it’s just killing us that we’re not over there yet.”
The Bulldogs are packing a 13-9 record to the state tournament and have been playing their best volleyball recently, ending the season with six wins in seven matches, including a four-set victory at Glacier High in Kalispell in a Western AA playoff contest last week. The playoff determined a slot in the state tourney.
Hope said fine-tuning has been the subject of practice this week. She said the Bulldogs practiced on skills on Monday and half of Tuesday sessions, with competition work slated the rest of the week until heading to Bozeman.
“I feel we struggled against Glacier and so there were some technical things we needed to tighten up,” Hope said. “We needed to work on our blocking, footwork, hitting and so on.
“But, the practices have been good. It’s coming together. We’re talking to each other (during play), which you have to do in volleyball. How you feel is so important in volleyball. You have to have six people out there making things work for the team. It’s about the team and not about the ball.”
Butte High’s defense has been strong with 6-foot-3 senior middle blocker Emma Field leading the effort at the net and senior libero Trisha Ericson sparking it on the floor. Hope said she thinks the middles corps of Field, junior Ally Mueller and sophomore Mollee Conlan give the team quality depth and can defend against the bigger hitters Class AA opposition has to offer.
The three are also strong hitters and the offense has been quite balanced. Junior MacKenzie Tutty and sophomore Brooke McGrath are dependable on the outside while junior Hannah Morin-Ferguson plays well all along the net in rotation. Seniors Grace McGrath and Sydney Doyle aptly share the setting duties. Senior Cameron LaFond subs in hitting on rotation, too. Senior Kira Mortensen and sophomore Kennadie McMahon both have been major contributors to the team this season, but have missed the last month or so with injuries. Mortensen remains sidelined with a torn knee ligament while McMahon is likely out, too, because of a concussion, though she was to be checked again on Wednesday, Hope said. Sophomore Olivia Quinn provides a versatile relief option.
A non-conference two-set loss to defending state champion Helena Capital is the only blemish on C.M. Russell’s 23-1 ledger this year. Hope said the Bulldogs are familiar with the Rustlers from matches against the Great Falls school last year when Butte High was a member of the Eastern AA Conference before being moved to the Western Conference prior to this season.
“Allie Olsen is a great hitter, a great blocker and all-around great athlete,” Hope said of the 6-foot-3 CMR senior, who has committed to Pacific 12 Conference member Utah for volleyball. “They have great hitters and their setter (Lauren Lindseth) was All-State as a freshman last year.
“They’re a great team, but beatable. We have to bring our A game.”
The Rustlers list only two seniors on their roster.
The Bulldogs’ versatility, several players’ abilities to play different positions, could very well work to Butte High’s advantage, especially in making quick adjustments. The aforementioned depth will be important, too, throughout the tournament.
The team focus is on winning, Hope relayed, but added the experience is a lure in itself.
“We’re so grateful to get the opportunity to get there,” she said. “Last year, we just missed. We had the talent and the drive and the desire, but we just missed.
“This is about the team, about the relationships you build along the way — the long-lasting things.”