By Bruce Sayler
Two five-set losses in their last two volleyball matches of 2015 stick in the general craw of the Butte Central Maroons, though none of this year’s team was on the roster then.
The 2015 campaign ended for BC with losses to eventual champion Columbia Falls and runner-up Corvallis in the winners’ bracket and consolation bracket semifinals of the state Class A tournament. The third-place trophy Butte Central received was the first for the program in state volleyball tournament participation.
The Maroons would like to upgrade this week. They will play in the 2019 state Class A tourney, scheduled for Thursday through Saturday in the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman. The BC girls will play their first match at 2 p.m. on Thursday versus Glendive. It might be the first volleyball match between the schools in their programs’ histories. (Bracket)
The winner will move into a Thursday, 8 p.m. quarterfinal-round match and the loser will fall into a noon Friday slot in the elimination bracket.
Butte Central advanced as the runner-up from the Western A Divisional competition held last weekend.
“We did OK at divisionals,” Becky Hancock, head coach of the Maroons, said. “We went there and played well with a lot of team chemistry and heart and a lot of desire to prove we were one of the best teams at the divisional. I felt we had a great tournament.
“After beating Dillon (for a guaranteed state tournament spot), we could’ve laid low. But, the girls wanted to win it all and I hope that determination continues into the state tournament.”
Hancock was also the head coach of BC in its 2015 run. The players were still in junior high school, but the coach noted that senior setter Emma Keeley watched from the fieldhouse stands.
“Counting this year, it’s been four years (since playing at State),” Hancock said. “We had some returning juniors after that, but these players are main ones we’ve been working on the last couple of years. We’ve been through the ups and downs of rebuilding the team — we were 2-and-12 in 2017 — to a winning season last year. We didn’t get out of divisionals last year. So, now, we’re to where it will be a bittersweet experience for our seniors.”
The seniors are defensive specialist Sophie Sullivan, outside hitter Cassidy Strizic, Keeley, defensive specialist Breeann Williamson and right-side hitter Makala Doherty.
Strizic and junior Maci Reopelle have led the hitting attack all season while juniors Avery Kelly and Amira Bolton have starred patrolling the middle of the net. Williamson, Doherty and junior Marissa Anderson bring more power to the offense. Keeley and Reopelle are both good setters and 5-2 junior Sophia Burton is strong at libero. Sullivan brings good prowess to the offense on serve receive and defends well on the back row. Junior Mati McGree rotates in on the right side. Sophomore Delaney Hasquet also adds depth to the lineup.
“Even the ones who don’t play a lot come to practice every night and make (the regulars) compete,” Hancock said. “They contribute a lot.”
The work in practice this week, Hancock, said is in regard to adjusting some rotations so that the opponents don’t put together long serving runs that plagued Butte Central a little bit at the Western A tourney.
The combination possibilities, though, are positive. Hancock said the group is quite coachable along with being talented and close.
“Unity is a strength for us,” she said. “I see it when it all comes together. It flows with consistency and you see the commitment, out there having fun, playing volleyball and being a competitive group. They believe and you could see that this last weekend.”
Strategically, the play usually starts with the block for the Maroons, though the serve is also a solid part of their game. If the serve is returned, the BC knack for getting hands on the shot has been reliable.
“We’re working on getting at least the soft block,” Hancock said, “going and getting the ball, setting the block and closing the middle — giving the offense a shot.”
The serve often puts Butte Central’s alignment in an advantageous position.
“Our serve has been pretty consistent,” Hancock said. “We have to give ourselves a chance to defend by getting the serve — the first one — over and getting more aggressive from there. We’ve been able, at times, to serve a team off the court and I think that’s what we’re going to try to do, serve some big runs.”
It’ll be a place to try to start when facing Glendive. Hancock said she and her team don’t have a lot of information about the Red Devils, but figures they are in the same situation regarding the many pluses and few minuses of the Maroons.
Glendive placed second in the Eastern A Divisional and is making its second straight trip to the state tournament. The Red Devils bowed out in two matches, losing to Corvallis and Whitefish in 2018.
The Red Devils won the Northeastern A regular-season title with a 10-1 league record and placed behind two-time defending state champion Billings Central at the Eastern A divisional. They are 23-3 overall while the Maroons sport a 13-5 season mark.
“They have three 6-footers, so are probably good up front,” Hancock said. “We’ll start watching some of their games (Monday night) with what’s on-line. We’ll gather the girls as a group and watch together.”
It is this group of Maroons first experience playing in the state volleyball tournament, which will have championship action in all four classes, the State A being held in conjunction with the State AA, State B and State C tourneys on four sportscourts placed over the fieldhouse floor.
Hancock said she thinks her charges will be undaunted.