By Bill Foley
You do not even have to have your eyes open to know Montana Tech has something special on the volleyball court.
When senior Karina Mickelson and sophomore Maureen Jessop hit the ball, you can hear it.
“It’s fun when you’re coaching and you have players in volleyball when they hit it sounds different than when everyone else hits,” Montana Tech coach Brian Solomon said. “We’ve got two of those.”
Those two Orediggers will finally get the chance to make that sound Friday when Tech travels to Billings to open Frontier Conference play against Rocky Mountain College. The teams will play at 7 p.m. Friday and then again at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Fortin Center.
Tech, which finished last season with the No. 17 ranking in the NAIA, will play its first home matches will be Feb. 5 and 6 against MSU-Northern.
If it seems like forever ago since the Montana Tech volleyball has made that echoing boom in a gym, that is because it has.
The last time the Orediggers played a meaningful point was in early in the morning of Dec. 6, 2019 at the NAIA National Volleyball Tournament in Sioux City, Iowa.
By the time the Orediggers take the court Friday, 420 days will have passed since they played a match. The team never even got to play spring ball last year because of the coronavirus pandemic that eventually pushed the Frontier Conference volleyball season from the fall until winter and spring.
Solomon, who is entering his ninth season at Montana Tech, is looking to take his Orediggers to the national tournament for the fourth time in five seasons. Solomon said he has a nice mix of experience, youth talent and power to make a run once again. Frontier Conference coaches apparently agree since they ranked Tech No. 1 in the preseason coaches’ poll on Wednesday.
Mickelson and setter Kamaile Moody will lead the Orediggers into action, on and off the court.
“They both played really big roles for our program for the last three plus years,” Solomon said. “We’re looking to them as great leaders.”
Mickelson averaged 3.2 kills per game for the Orediggers in 2019. Jessop averaged 3.3 on her way to earning All-American honors. She was also named the Frontier Conference Freshman of the Year after her outstanding true-freshman season that helped the Orediggers share the conference title with the University of Providence.
“We’ve got some big hitters,” Solomon said. “When we get a rhythm going it is pretty successful. We’ve just got to sustain the lulls.”
Sophomore setter McKenna Kaelber is back after earning second-team all-conference honors as a freshman.
The Orediggers lost four-year libero Sabrina Hopcroft to graduation. Gena McMillan is no longer on the Tech roster after earning second-team all-conference honors as a junior last season.
The incoming freshman class, though, includes Florence libero Sarah Hopcroft, Sabrina’s sister.
“It’s a push there,” Solomon said with a smile. “We’re one Hopcroft in the positive.”
The Orediggers also bring back experienced juniors Sydney Parks, Portia Cortner and Kiya Loobey. They are joined by sophomores Emma Carvo, Taylor Henley, Kaylene Davis and Hudsyn Dibrito and freshman Alexis Umland, Shelby Draper, Megan Benton, MacKenzie Davis and Logan Reed on the Tech roster.
While Solomon, who is assisted by former Butte High standout Kristi (Witt) Arntson, will lean on his seniors for leadership, he said that is a quality that runs up and down his roster.
“It’s been encouraging to see our young players,” Solomon said. “We had some freshman from last year who didn’t play as much, and they’re training at a high level and with a lot of focus. They’re impressing us.”
The Orediggers will play a 20-match conference schedule. That includes games on Friday and Saturday each week for 10 weeks, running through April 3.
The national tournament begins April 27 in Iowa. The Orediggers are making a habit of being there. Solomon said that habit is strengthening his program.
“Those experience build the standard, the leadership and the expectations,” he said. “That’s what makes a team really good.”
With the Orediggers, you don’t always have to open your eyes to see that.