By Bill Foley
A trip to Southern California won’t exactly be a walk in the park for the Montana Tech volleyball team.
The Orediggers open the 2016 season Thursday and Friday at the Biola Summer Slam in La Mirada, California, which is not far from Disney Land. This is far from a vacation for the Tech team, though, as the Orediggers take on four teams mentioned in Tuesday’s NAIA Top 25 preseason coaches’ poll.
Tech will play The Master’s College (California) at 3 p.m. Thursday before battling Southern Oregon at 7 p.m. On Friday, the Orediggers play Westmont College (California) at 9 a.m. They wrap up the tournament against Northwestern College (Iowa) at 5 p.m.
Master’s received votes in the poll, while Southern Oregon (No. 18), Westmont (No. 16) and Northwestern (No. 24) all cracked the Top 25. The Orediggers, who were picked in a tie for fourth by coaches in the Frontier Conference preseason poll, were not mentioned.
Montana Tech’s fifth-year head coach Brian Solomon said facing such tough competition out of the gate is a good thing.
“We’re going to see some pretty good teams,” Solomon said. “It will give us a chance to evaluate our own weaknesses and evaluate how teams are going to attack us.”
The Orediggers will also face top-notch competition next week when they host a 14-team tournament at the Butte Civic Center.
Solomon said his team is ready for the challenge.
“We’ve had two good weeks of practice,” the coach said. “We’re doing a lot of things that we’d like to see and making some improvements. We need to see some other teams now so we can see where we’re at.”
Solomon’s Orediggers are an experienced bunch with a dozen players returning from last year. He said those players have all taken on a leadership role.
“We have 12 returners, so it’s really cultivated from within all of them,” Solomon said. “It’s not really just one person here or there. I see a lot of our newcomers that will add to that element.”
One newcomer Oredigger fans should expect big things from is Nicole Peacock, a 5-foot-11 junior right-side hitter who transferred from Salt Lake Community College before the spring semester.
“She’s been playing well,” Solomon said. “She’s definitely added a good element. She was here for spring ball for us. We have a couple of freshman who we are hoping to see have an impact for us too.”
Oredigger returners include seniors Bailie Cortner, a 6-2 middle blocker, and Makenzie Bauck, a 5-2 setter. Cortner earned an All-American honorable mention last season, while Bauck, a four-year setter for the Orediggers, took home second-team all-conference honors.
Tech will also get a boost from the return of 6-1 senior middle blocker Haley Druyvestein, who suffered a torn ACL at the beginning of conference play last season. That injury drastically changed the look of the 2015 Orediggers, who climbed into the Top 25 poll with a strong preseason.
Other seniors on the Oredigger roster are libero Angie Pancost and 6-foot outside hitter Jordan Danz.
The roster also includes redshirt juniors Danika Neumann and Mariah Cooney, a pair of Butte Central graduates. Neumann is a defensive specialist, while the 6-1 Cooney gives the Orediggers a strong presence at the net.
Sophomores Hannah Liss, Katie Wiley and Tori Chelini and freshmen Sabrina Hopcroft, Rachel Hadley, Heather Thompson and Gena McMillan round out the Tech roster.
Solomon is once again assisted by Butte High graduate Kristi Witt.
“They had probably their best spring,” Solomon said of his Orediggers. “I think this is the strongest they’ve been.”
In all, the Orediggers will play 12 non-conference matches before opening their Frontier Conference schedule Sept. 14 at home against Carroll College.
Solomon said non-conference slate will prepare the Orediggers for the grind of playing in a tough conference.
“We’ve just got to get better,” the coach said. “I think we’ll be able to do that these next couple of weeks. We’re going to play some really good teams.”