By Bruce Sayler
The Montana Tech college women’s volleyball season started early this year and the Orediggers were on time.
They won three of four matches last week in the Hope International Summer Slam tournament. Despite ninth-year head coach Brian Solomon’s first competition gelling the 2019 mixture of veterans and newcomers, Montana Tech responded with wins over John Brown, La Sierra and Embry Riddle, and losing only to Westmont. The tournament was played in Fullerton, California, and allowed for a comfortable entry into the season.
“It was super fun in Fullerton,” sophomore hitter Sydney Parks said. “We got to go the beach.”
It was an exclamation point to the end-of-summer declaration for the Orediggers, who will see more duty this week in tournament play. They will be the hosts this time.
The Big Sky Volleyball Challenge will go on in the Butte Civic Center Thursday through Saturday as college teams from around the nation take on Frontier Conference teams in non-league competition. Three matches at a time will be played during most time slots, providing a selection of matches for viewers to watch. (Tournament schedule)
Montana Tech will first go up against Northwest University of Kirkland, Washington, at 5 p.m. on Thursday. The Orediggers are set to play twice on Friday, versus Bethel College of Mishawaka, Indiana, at 11 a.m. and then College of Idaho at 7 p.m. Saturday will see Montana Tech take on Valley City State of North Dakota at 11 a.m.
College of Idaho is ranked 12th in the NAIA preseason poll.
Solomon saw areas to improve in the team, but seemed also pleased with progress made in a short time before the Fullerton tournament.
“I think it was a really good tournament,” he said. “We had only about 10 days of practice under our belts before we went in. We had a lot of young kids on the court and we had good contributions from a lot of kids, including the freshmen. But, we had some yips and bounced it around a little bit.”
Montana Tech was picked to finish third in the Frontier Conference this year by the league’s head coaches in the recent preseason poll. The roster has seen quite a bit of turnover since last year, so newcomers to the program will see early action, maybe earlier than was anticipated.
Their response has been good, so far.
Veterans Parks and Gena McMillen and freshman Maureen Jessop were leading hitters while McKenna Kaelber could be solidifying the setter role that was unclear part of last season. All-Conference senior libero Sabrina Hopcroft looked to take up where she left off last season in digging up saves. She is a fourth-year starter.
Senior middle hitter Heather Thompson, a returning starter, was consistent both offensively and defensively centering play at the net. Junior hitter and returning starter Karina Mickelson had big moments attacking and blocking, as well.
Jessop is a 6-foot-1 freshman from Corvallis, Hopcroft a 5-7 senior from Florence, Thompson a 5-11 senior from Lake Tapps, Washington, Kaelber a 5-11 freshman from Pasco, Washington, Mickelson a 6-0 junior from Laguna Niguel, California, Parks a 6-3 sophomore from Post Falls, Idaho, and McMillan a 5-9 junior from Huntington Beach, California.
McMillan rejoined the team after sitting out last season.
Parks said she remains 6-3, but the member of the Frontier all-freshman team of 2018 looks as though she is taller. Solomon said he thought so, too, but it’s more likely she has improved her vertical play.
“I’m thinner,” she said with a smile and a shrug.
“We definitely have stuff to work on, but I’m really excited to go out and play,” Parks added. “There are a lot of things we can improve. My blocking is a lot better. I worked hard over the summer.”
“We’re working now on implementing everything as a team.”
Solomon said such has been key. He noted that all the Orediggers have had successful prep careers and will often revert to what they know when thrown into higher-stress pressure situations on the court. He wants the new instincts developed to be the Montana Tech program teachings, the way melding all of the players. It’s not that past learnings are wrong, just might be different from the current Oredigger approach to the sport, and it is important all are reading the same page.
“It’s just a lot of technical stuff,” Solomon said. “We’re not going to be doing anything different right now. The kids played well last week working through a lot of bugs.”
The adjustments aren’t, or shouldn’t be, big, the coach said.
“It’s not like we’re learning a football playbook in a week,” he said. “We’re just installing everything we can as a team and as a culture.”
“So, we’re happy to get to practice. We have a couple of things to clean up on offense and on defense before this tournament. Anytime we can get some wins, it’s good. And, there will be good teams in this tournament.”
Parks seemed optimistic about the team’s prospects.
“All the freshmen are super awesome,” she said. “And, our setter is also playing DS (defensive specialist). That’s super cool for us.”
Parks added that this team has a stubborn, patient fabric, one looking to ignite its offense with a sturdy, even big-play defense.
“Defense has been the focus for us,” she said. “Offense comes with the adrenaline and energy. You get a good dig and pass it, and put up a good ball (for the kill). There’s not a lot else to do with it.”
She and her coach both said volleyball is a simple game.
The play, though, seems complicated and the hard-playing, quick-thinking Orediggers are geared up to navigate another successful season.