Eyes on the Prize

By Beacon Staff

Who’s afraid of the Billings Senior Lady Broncs?

Not the Flathead Bravettes.

Entering this week’s Class AA state volleyball tournament in Bozeman, the Bravettes are fueled by momentum and confidence.

This has been a milestone season at Flathead High School. The Bravettes swept their Western AA schedule — the first time in school history, according to their coach — and they dropped only seven sets in 12 conference matches. With an 18-4 overall record, the team won its third conference title, its first since 2006, and advanced to the state tourney for the 10th year in a row.

Yet the Bravettes still stand in the shadow of a larger goliath. Top-ranked Billings Senior is 28-0 and the undeniable favorite to win its seventh championship in the last 11 seasons.

But anything can happen at the state tournament, especially when a team is ferociously motivated.

“We’re ready to keep fighting,” Flathead senior Cassie Krueger said. “It’s great to be first in the conference but we’re definitely keeping our eyes on the prize.”

Second-ranked Flathead opens tournament play against Billings West (17-10) at 2 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 8.

Fourth-ranked Glacier (18-6) advanced to state for the third straight year after beating Missoula Big Sky in a playoff match last week. The Wolfpack play fifth-ranked Bozeman (19-6) in the opening round of the tournament at 4 p.m. on Thursday.

If both Flathead and Glacier win their openers, the rivals would meet in the quarterfinals later that night at 8 p.m.
Kalispell has consistently had two of the best teams in the state all season, reflected by both Flathead and Glacier ranking in the top five of the coaches’ power poll almost all fall.

The Bravettes rank first in the state in kills (521), assists (474) and aces (128) in regular season play. Glacier is fifth in kills (453), sixth in aces (108) and sixth in blocks (90).

Individually, Flathead has two seniors who broke impressive school records. Krueger broke the school record for kills with 495. Former all-state Bravette Hannah Sackett held the previous record of 473 set in 2009.

Flathead High School head volleyball coach Leon Wilcox, right, talks with senior player Cassie Krueger on the sidelines during a recent Bravettes’ practice. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Emily Russell broke the school record for both assists and aces. Russell has 1,070 assists, breaking the old mark of 999 set by Alison Lunde in 2009. Russell also has 92 aces, surpassing Kendalyn Habel’s record of 87 set in 2007.

Flathead senior Kwyn Johnson has been nursing an injury all season, but as the future Arizona State Sun Devil put it, she’s ready to “swing away.”

“I feel great and I think we have a great shot at state,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s injury emerged early in the season and her role on the team became considerably downsized. Most teams would have floundered in this situation, but the Bravettes barely skipped a beat thanks to a strong supporting cast.

“It’s definitely been a team effort. They have been consistent at that all season and it’s definitely been our strength,” head coach Leon Wilcox said. “We have beat teams that are overall bigger and that have a more solid front row. But it’s just that team chemistry and them fighting together for the team. That makes them strong.”

Flathead had a small hiccup in Great Falls in early September. The Bravettes finished a disappointing fifth at the Electric City Invitational.

“I think they left that tournament a little bit dissatisfied with the outcome but it got them motivated,” Wilcox said. “We kind of rolled after that.”

Fittingly, Flathead’s most exciting moment so far came against its cross-town rival. Flathead entered its second meeting with Glacier having won nine straight matches without losing a set. But in a packed Flathead gymnasium, Glacier stunned the home team and won the first two, the first team in over a month to accomplish that. The Bravettes rallied to win the next three sets but it was close. Glacier later bested Flathead at the Missoula Invitational tournament, winning the championship. The Wolfpack have also picked up spoiler victories over defending champ Helena High, which placed second in the conference standings and is ranked third overall, and Helena Capital, the fourth-place team in the West.

Several local players rank near the top in Western AA individual stat categories. Glacier senior Tiffany Marks ranks fifth in hitting and fourth in blocking in Western AA. Teammate Kailea Vaudt is the third-ranked digger and junior Cassi Hashley is the second-ranked passer. Flathead junior Iris Matulevich is the top-ranked passer. Flathead junior Emma Andrews ranks fourth. Russell is the top-ranked server, followed by Glacier sophomore Hannah Liss. Andrews is third. Krueger is tops in kills. Marks is third and Hashley is fourth.

Makayla Moore keeps her teammates amped up during a recent volleyball practice at Flathead High School. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Flathead’s undefeated conference record and division title were “special” accomplishments, Wilcox said. Those were two goals established before the season began. But now one giant goal remains. Flathead won its lone state championship in 2001, and the closest the Bravettes have been ever since was in 2006. That year Flathead lost to Billings Senior in the title game.

The threat of Billings Senior looms again.

“They are the juggernaut in the state,” Wilcox said. “They have a lot of physical presence.”

The Bravettes played the Lady Broncs at the Great Falls tournament. Billings Senior won 20-14 and 20-11.

At a practice before state, the question was asked of three seniors and the head coach: If Flathead ends up playing Billings Senior, could the Bravettes be the one team to beat the undefeated?

The answers, each separately and immediately, echoed the same sentiment.

“We have what it takes,” Russell said. “We’re kind of the underdog, but we can prove that we have what it takes to win.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.