By Bruce Sayler
Play at the net figures to be intense when an NAIA volleyball playoffs first-round match pits host Montana Tech against Westmont on Saturday night.
The first serve in the Montana Tech HPER Complex is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Brian Solomon, head coach of the Orediggers, said both lineups bring good balance in team play and tall standouts at the net. The quality of their play shows in both being ranked among the NAIA Top 25 teams. Montana Tech has a 24-8 record and is ranked 17th while Westmont, from Santa Barbara, California, is 22-6 and No. 25 in the rankings.
Both are at-large invitees to the tournament as the Orediggers were runners-up Rocky Mountain in the Frontier Conference tournament after winning the league’s regular-season crown. Westmont won the regular-season title of the Golden State Athletic Conference, then was second to William Jessup in the GSAC tournament.
The winner will advance to the NAIA Championship Final Site in Sioux City, Iowa. The finals will be held November 30-December 6.
“We get to keep playing,” Montana Tech head coach Brian Solomon said in low-key manner. “We’ve been trying to do some homework this week on (the Warriors). They’re a really good team. They’re well-balanced and play with really good ball control. They have a lot of big kids. They have quite a few players 6-foot to 6-3. That height has a big effect on their game.”
Senior Lexi Malone, a 6-3 middle hitter, has been Westmont’s force with a .355 hitting percentage and 2.6 kills a set average. She totaled 98 blocks this season.
Also a standout is 5-10 junior outside hitter Phoebe Minch with a team-high 2.92 kills a set. She averages 3.84 digs a set, as well. The setter is 5-8 senior Keelyn Kistner and she averages 5.42 assists per set. She fired 40 service aces during the season.
Head coach Ruth McGolpin puts more height and capability at the net with 6-2 freshman Alexis Dennick, 6-1 sophomore Sara Krueger, 6-1 freshman Ashley Boswell, 6-1 sophomore Taylor Distelberg and 6-0 outside hitter Jessie Terlizzi. At the other end of the spectrum is 4-foot-10 freshman libero Ilyssa Ocampo.
Solomon is in his 11th season guiding the Orediggers and has taken them to the NAIA playoffs now five times. This year marked the fourth time he was named Frontier Conference Coach of the Year. He has been honored as such four times, has a 179-105 record at Montana Tech and has now won three Frontier Conference regular-season titles, Nick Bowsher of Montana Tech Sports Information said in notes provided to media.
“This match will have size on both sides of the net,” Solomon said. “We had a great regular season and we’ve been enjoying a great season. I’m happy our players get to experience this.
“It definitely took some time to get our rhythm this year. The upside is that we had a lot of players ready to contribute. We have a lot of ways to match up with teams.”
Some new faces dotted the Montana Tech lineup this year and mixed well with reliable returnees to form the league championship team. The leading returnee was 6-1 senior outside hitter Maureen “Mo” Jessop, who recently was named Frontier Conference Player of the Year. A four-time all-conference honoree, Jessop was chosen to the first team and third straight year. She led the league in kills with a 416 total and a 3.85 per-set average. She also led the conference in aces with 36.
The Orediggers had two more All-Conference first-team selections in 5-11 senior outside hitter Olivia Muir and 6-1 senior middle blocker Taylor Henley. Muir was fifth in the league in kills with 355 and in hitting percentage at .222. Henley was first in blocks with 135, ranking ninth nationally. She had a .270 hitting percentage for second in the conference and had 231 kills, averaging a career-best 2.14 per-set.
Montana Tech setter McKenna Kaelber was picked to the All-Conference second team. The 5-11 senior averaged 8.05 assists a game. Oredigger Olivia Caddy, a 5-5 libero, was chosen Frontier Conference Freshman of the Year. She totaled 480 digs, averaging 4.17 per set, and she also served 16 aces.
“We have a lot of good players in the mix,” Solomon said. “I like this team. The players are selfless and team-focused. They just support each other.
“And, we will have our hands full on Saturday.”