By Bruce Sayler
Gena McMillen’s deep blast skipped off of some back-row fingertips and Montana Tech had passed its volleyball test Friday morning.
The win, not one handed the Orediggers, nor that arrived in cruise mode, was achieved in the opening round of the 17-team, 34-match Big Sky Volleyball Challenge tournament in the Butte Civic Center. The college tourney continues through Saturday on brand new sports courts Butte bought recently to lure more volleyball events to The Mining City.
The Montana Tech win was by 25-22, 24-26, 26-28, 25-23, 15-11 over St. Francis of Indiana in a match that left little room for much more competitiveness. They vied block-for-block, shot-for-shot, dig-for-dig and went toe-to-toe at the net. Stats
The Orediggers are ranked 14th in the NAIA coaches’ poll, and maybe St. Francis should be.
The McMillan kill ended the match just as the Cougars were clawing back with a late-set rally, after giving Montana Tech too much breathing room at the beginning of the tiebreaker. The Orediggers grabbed a 2-1 edge on a net violation charged St. Francis and pried the margin open to 10-6 moments later. Angela Molesworth delivered the kill for the 10th point.
The Cougars, though, snarled. They got back to within 11-9 on a shot by Cassidy Rammel before Montana Tech middle blocker Heather Thompson buried a kill, then assisted on a block.
Another Thompson spike etched in match point at 14-11 and then McMillen scorched her winning shot too hot to block, pass or dig.
“That was a pretty exciting match,” agreed Brian Solomon, head coach of the Orediggers. “We survived a game we didn’t serve well, I think. Our blockers came up with a lot of blocks at the net, and we had a lot of good hitters producing. We had a balanced attack.”
Montana Tech notched 16 ½ blocks and all were shared as the defense reacted quickly to the Cougars’ set-ups. Thompson had nine blocks while Angela Molesworth and Haley Druyvestein posted seven each, and Masha Korol six.
Solomon liked Thompson’s 10-kill contribution to the offense, too.
“Heather had a heck of a start,” he said. “She was at .750. She didn’t get a lot of chances, but she was efficient.”
Molesworth and Nicole Peacock shared the team kills lead with 15 apiece, and Korol tallied 10. Setters Tori Chelini and Kamaile Moody registered 28 assists each.
“Both sides blocked well,” Solomon said. “It took us a little longer to make our adjustments. We’re still learning through the process.”
Druyvestein, Peacock, McMillen and libero Sabrina Hopcroft, who came up with 13 digs, are the only returning Orediggers with a lot of previous playing time for Montana Tech. The 6-foot-2 Molesworth is a transfer from Alaska-Fairbanks where she starred for the Nanooks, and Korol is from the Ukraine and transferred from Eastern Arizona College. Chelini and server Hannah Liss both saw some previous action for the Orediggers while Moody is a freshman. Druyvestein sat out last year recovering from knee surgery.
It seemed the Orediggers trailed most of the first four games. They were behind by 14-8 in the first set after a Megan Diagostino kill. They didn’t catch the Fort Wayne-based Cougars until 22-all when Molesworth hammered a kill. A shot by St. Francis’ Anne Clark bounced high and wide off the net and Montana Tech had its first lead of the game. Diagostino’s block attempt then ricocheted out of bounds to bring set point. Liss aced the next serve to win the game.
The second set was similar. The teams traded points early, but St. Francis then built an 18-11 command on a Rammel kill. A Clark shot tangled in the net sometime later and put the score tied at 22-all. A Liss ace gave the team its first lead, but the Panthers rebounded. A Diagostino block denied set point and re-knotted the score at 24-all. Nikki Marshall fired an ace for St. Francis game point, then unleashed a kill from the back row to end the set and even the match at a game apiece.
St. Francis seized the game three lead at 6-5 on a Rammel kill. It expanded to 16-10 on a Clark shot. Montana Tech again fought back. A Cougar serve-receive error squared the score at 24-all. They traded points to 26=al before St. Francis scored on a kill by Ava Kunkler and an ace by Marshall. The Cougars owned a 2-1 lead in sets.
So, Montana Tech needed to win the next set in order to have a chance to win the match. Again, the Orediggers fell behind. Rammel served an ace for a 15-10 Cougar lead and then a try by Korol sailed past the end line. However, Chelini soon served four straight points and the Orediggers were back in the game. Druyvestein led a block for one of the points, two came on St. Francis errors and one on a penalty.
Chelini dumped a fake set over the net for an 18-all tie. The squads played point-for-point until Druyvestein keyed another block that made the score 24-23, set point for Montana Tech. Maria Pelak hit a shot too far for St. Francis and the match was tied, headed for the fifth-set decider.
“Maybe, this one got us going,” Solomon said as his 4-1 Orediggers next faced a 7 p.m. match with 10th-ranked Eastern Oregon. “This venue is great. This is a great start to our weekend.”
St. Francis leaders included Rammel with 18 kills, Kendra Siefring with 12 and Diagostino with 11. Marshall served three aces, and Pelak set 40 assists and posted six blocks. Libero Valorie Flick scooped 15 digs.