In Bigfork, Four Seniors Look to Hang Another Banner

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – Standing in the Bigfork High School gymnasium, senior Bekah Bell motioned to the wall where a single state volleyball championship banner from 1986 hangs. Bell wasn’t even born yet. Now she, along with three other seniors who have all played together since grade school, thinks this could be the year the Valkyries give that lonely banner some company.

“The wall looks a little empty,” Bell said. “All these years we’ve played together are coming together to form the perfect team, the perfect season.”

After consecutive victories over perennial powerhouses Whitefish and Libby to open up the regular season, it would be tough to argue against Bell. But she knows it’s an uphill battle.

In the past 17 years, four schools – Whitefish, Hardin, Havre and Lewistown – have won every Class A state volleyball championship except for a two-year lull when Libby and Columbia Falls each snuck in a title. Bigfork is looking to be the third Northwest Montana school to crash the party. It all starts with the four seniors, who are healthy following a season in which three of them were injured. Last year the Vals finished 11-7 and placed third at the divisional tournament.

A single volleyball championship banner from 1986 hangs on the wall of Bigfork High School behind a referee calling Bigfork’s volleyball game against Libby.

Bell and fellow senior Rachael Luckow each had shoulder injuries, while Jill Hamilton tore her ACL. Roxy Thurman, the Vals’ star hitter, was the only one of the four who was healthy last year. Hamilton, in fact, was told she wouldn’t even be able to play this year following surgery. But she wasn’t prepared to let a bum knee steal her senior year.

So with the four determined seniors leading an otherwise young squad, head coach Yvonne Peck feels confident. Peck said injuries, while unfortunate, often instill an increased sense of urgency in athletes – after missing so much action, they want to take advantage of every second they have once they’re back on the court.

“Competitors don’t want to miss play,” Peck said. “When they do come back I think it can fuel a fire because that has been taken away.”

Peck is back at the helm after a one-year hiatus in which she was pursuing her master’s degree in mathematics. Before last year, she coached at Bigfork for four seasons and a variety of other schools since the mid-1980s. Kelsey Jensen, who replaced Peck, resigned after one season and the school once again looked to Peck.

Coming off the back-to-back victories over Whitefish and Libby, along with a strong showing at a tip-off tourney against teams from around the state, Peck said her talented squad has made the transition back into coaching easy.

“It’s incredibly encouraging,” Peck said. “You don’t know when you go away and come back where things are going to be.”

Bigfork volleyball teammates celebrate a point made by senior Jill Hamilton, center, during last week’s win over Libby.

The Vals hope the win over Whitefish on the road on Sept. 16 sets the tone for the year. Whitefish has won five out of the last eight state championships. Thurman said the victory instilled a confidence in the girls that is vital for such a young team. Peck concurs.

“Is it an incredibly big momentum boost for my kids to go into Whitefish and win? You bet,” Peck said.

Bigfork’s championship in 1986 came when the school was still in Class B. The move up from Class B a decade ago has been difficult for all of the athletic programs, despite a series of standout individual athletes. With only about 325 students, Bigfork has the fourth-smallest enrollment out of 24 Class A schools. By comparison, Columbia Falls has more than 830 kids. Coaches have to work with the limited resources at hand.

“We have five fall sports for girls and a little over 300 kids, so that spreads our athletes very, very thin,” Peck said.

With lower turnouts, schools like Bigfork rely on the leadership of their stars and the tight-knit camaraderie often found in small towns, along with the usual formula of hard work and practice. While it’s impossible to quantify the importance of friendship among teammates, it is clear that it contributes greatly to cohesiveness and chemistry. Thurman and Hamilton have played volleyball together and been friends since fifth grade. Bell and Luckow entered the picture two years later.

The four girls say by now they understand each other’s moods, weaknesses, strengths and habits. Without looking, they know where the others are on the court and can predict what kind of pass is coming their way. They say when those intangibles come together during matches, the Vals feel they can beat anybody.

Bigfork’s Mallery Knoll, right, drives the ball into the defending hands of Nichole Newman during last week’s win over Libby at Bigfork High School.

“When we’re on, we’re on,” Hamilton said.

Northwestern A is annually one of the toughest conferences in the state. But this year, both Peck and the players said, is particularly balanced. Whitefish and Libby are always favorites, but Polson has also emerged as a team to beat. Columbia Falls is tall and talented and Ronan is improved. Getting to state will be hard enough, but these girls have a swagger.

“We have the toughest conference,” Bell said. “But once we get to state, (a championship) is definitely doable.”