By Bruce Sayler
Montana Tech head volleyball coach Brian Solomon sounded genuinely pleased by the Orediggers’ success this season and not at all surprised about where they are.
Well, he was somewhat surprised they were in Denver Monday morning. Plans were for them to have been in Sioux City, Iowa, by Saturday night.
However, winter struck the northland of the country over the weekend and the flight was canceled because of blizzard-like conditions. Montana Tech scrambled and pieced together new itineraries for the team. Some members left Butte and flew to Denver Monday morning. Some more were due to arrive there later in the day. Solomon said once all the players are collected they will journey en masse on to Sioux City by evening and get ready to play on Tuesday. The 19th-ranked Orediggers are due to play No. 15 Concordia of Lincoln, Nebraska, at 7:30 p.m. (MST) on Tuesday in their first game of pool play in the 32-team NAIA National Tournament.
“We were supposed to fly out on Saturday,” Solomon said, talking about the original travel plans that went awry, leading to unneeded distractions, which the team seems to have handled like it does most opponents’ serves. “The practices have been good (since placing second to Providence of Great Falls in the Frontier Conference tournament two weeks ago). “We had a few extra days (because of the travel complications) for practice and we worked out a few things. The conference championship game exposed something we weren’t ready for. So, that helped, actually. Anytime you can circle a weakness with a red pen, it is good to have time to fix it.”
Providence gained the Frontier’s automatic berth in the national tourney with the league tourney championship win over the Orediggers. Montana Tech, being ranked among the NAIA’s best all season, was picked for an at-large berth. They are joined in their pool by third-ranked Indiana Wesleyan and unranked St. Mary of Leavenworth, Kansas.
“We have three top teams in our draw,” Solomon said. “We have our work cut out for us to go and compete, for sure. Two are conference champions.
“The tough thing is adjusting, adapting to play teams you haven’t seen. We’ve been seeing quite a bit on film the last couple of days.”
The Orediggers are packing a 25-7 record into the national tournament where they advanced from pool play to the single-elimination championship bracket in 2017 before losing out of the competition to Missouri Baptist.
After Tuesday’s match with Concordia-Nebraska (23-6), Montana Tech will play Indiana Wesleyan (34-1) on Wednesday at 5 p.m. before finishing pool play on Thursday versus St. Mary of Kansas at 7 p.m. Those qualifying for bracket play will advance to the weekend rounds.
Tech’s matches on Wednesday and Thursday, as well as any potential tournament matches, will be broadcast live on KBOW, 550 AM, 101.5 FM or online.
“An at-large bid for the national tournament is big,” Solomon said about the worthy invitation. “We played a great non-conference schedule that gave a lot of weight for that spot. Hopefully, it will be business as usual for us.”
Montana Tech entered the season with a muchly revamped roster after the graduation of some stars and some others not coming back to the team. The rebuilding seemed to happen in a nearly record short time.
“We should be happy with how we finished the regular season,” Solomon said. “We got a lot of quality play from new players and a lot of quality play from returning veterans. I think this is our best record going into the national tournament.
“We overcame some bumps along the way. It’s been exciting this week of practice.”
Six Orediggers were honored as All-Frontier Conference selections at the end of the regular season. The list includes three first-team picks in senior libero Sabrina Hopcroft, junior outside hitter Karina Mickelson and true freshman outside hitter Maureen Jessop.
Hopcroft was also named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and Jessop nailed down the conference Freshman of the Year designation.
Freshman setter McKenna Kaelber and junior outside hitter Gena McMillan were voted to the all-conference second team. Kaelber joined Jessop on the Frontier’s All-Freshman team and junior setter Kamaile Moody was named Montana Tech’s Champion of Character. Solomon was tabbed the Coach of the Year for the conference. Senior middle blocker Heather Thompson was a 2018 all-league choice and turned in another solid season this year at the net.
The block has been a strength for the Orediggers with Thompson and 6-foot-1 sophomore Sydney Parks centering it from the middle of the front row. Freshman back-row and serving specialist Hannah Oggerino, freshman setter Emma Carvo, sophomore front-row player Portia Cortner, sophomore outside hitter Kiya Loobey, freshman defensive specialist Hudsy DiBrito, freshman middle blocker Taylor Henley, sophomore front-row player Zoe Cortner and freshman middle blocker Logan Reed have also been contributors to the good season put together by the Orediggers. Former Butte HIgh and Montana Tech standout Kristi (Witt) Arntson assists Solomon on the coaching staff.
Frontier Conference champion and 17th-ranked Providence (24-6) will have pool-play matches against No. 16 Oklahoma City (33-1) at noon on Tuesday, defending champion and top-ranked Park of Missouri (28-3) at 1 p.m. on Wednesday and unranked Morningside of Iowa at 3 p.m. on Thursday.
Solomon said the Orediggers were spending a seven-hour layover in the Denver airport on Monday studying for school. He said the competitive focus will pick up and even though a late-season surge, except for the league tourney loss to Providence, pushed the team into the national spotlight, the past has to be regarded as past.
“I don’t know who said it,” Solomon said, “but, it goes something like a win yesterday doesn’t buy you a cup of coffee tomorrow.”
The Orediggers have cultivated a taste for winning.