By Bruce Sayler
Surely, Heather Thompson will miss the matches and the camaraderie of her Montana Tech volleyball teammates once this season, her senior one, is completed.
She might even miss the practices.
She said she might likely miss another aspect of her life as a college athlete, one not too many mention as a positive one.
“It really helps we get to be on the bus as much as we do,” she commented about the long bus trips the team takes for matches, in and out of the Frontier Conference. “I get a lot of studying done.”
Thompson has gotten enough done that she will graduate in accounting in May.
One road trip this season is in the books. She and her fellow Orediggers went 3-1 at the Hope International Summer Slam tournament in Fullerton, California, last week. It began their season.
This week, the travel is only from campus and across Butte to the Butte Civic Center where Montana Tech will be the host school in the Big Sky Volleyball Challenge tournament.
The 14-team tourney will run Thursday through Saturday on three courts inside the Civic Center and the first match for Montana Tech is set for 5 p.m. on Thursday against Northwest College of Kirkland, Washington. (Tournament schedule)
“We did really well,” Thompson, a 5-foot-11 middle hitter, said about the team performance in California. “Our defense was great and our offense was great. I think we competed well. The practice we put in really showed.”
Thompson is a third-year starter on the team. The upbeat hitter from Lake Tapps, Washington, earned first-team honors last year on the All-Frontier Conference team. She said this team is coming together well and the freshmen are working hard “to catch up” to the rest of the program members.
A lot of vacancies were left to fill following the 2018 season that saw the Orediggers reach the semifinals of the conference tournament.
Thompson and standout libero Sabrina Hopcroft are the only seniors on head coach Brian Solomon’s roster.
“We’ve been practicing multiple times a day,” Thompson said on Monday, before classes were to start. “We weren’t in school yet, so it was nice to get some stuff in, and some tournaments played.”
Thompson said the technique training is important to her, but she has also shown good instincts for playing at the net, though at 5-11, she is decidedly shorter than most players on the front row — both sides of the net.
So, lacking the height, she has to develop a game of quickness and recognition when going toe-to-toe with the 6-2 and taller opponents at the string.
“I am a smaller hitter,” she confessed. “I switched from the outside to the middle (in joining Montana Tech) and I am enjoying it. It is really a fight with the taller people.”
Her stats bear witness to her feistiness and ability. Thompson averaged a team-high .348 hitting percentage last year with 270 kills, a rate of 2.3 per set. She started in every match for the Orediggers and ranked second in the Frontier Conference in total blocks with 142 and in blocks per set with 1.2. Her career-highs are 20 kills versus Mayville State and 10 blocks against Montana Western, both last fall.
She said that being shorter can be an advantage for her Montana Tech’s style of play because the full-hand touches from a lower angle can deflect into sets or hitting opportunities for big swings.
Part of her role is to help find the weak spots in the opposing defense and she noted that all teams have such vulnerabilities.
“So, I’m searching for where to hit to and beating their block,” Thompson said.
Solomon said the good students, like Thompson, in the program build a strong core.
“They’re mentally engaged,” he said. “The focus comes from forming a shared goal.”
Stretching the season is Thompson’s goal, she said.
“It’s my senior year,” she said. “I want this team to go as far as it can.”