Net Defenders

With experience and athleticism, the defending state champs from Columbia Falls are back for more

By Dillon Tabish
Columbia Falls' Morgan Stenger, center, celebrates with Cydney Finberg, right, and Kaitlyn Casazza after a point against Whitefish on Sept. 8, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Watching this latest Columbia Falls volleyball team in action is at times thrilling and awe-inspiring. It’s also unbelievable. What are the chances that eight classmates who have mostly all played together for as long as they can remember would end up equally talented, athletic and ambitious, and on the same court together for one final championship pursuit?

Among these eight seniors, three are 6-foot or taller. Another pair is one inch shy of that towering benchmark. Each of them participates in at least two sports during the school year as all-state basketball, softball, tennis and track stars. And if all of that wasn’t enough, they’re all competitive to boot.

“If anybody has the opportunity to come watch Columbia Falls, they’re a great team,” said Whitefish head coach Jackie Fuller, who is in her second stint as head coach of the Bulldogs with five state titles under her belt. “They’re well rounded. They’re a great group of girls.”

“They’re just all athletes,” she added. “They’re just flat-out athletes. And with that, they’re smart kids and they do well in the classroom.”

Last week Fuller and the Bulldogs ran into the dominating Wildkats in Whitefish and were able to win the third set, 25-20. It was one of the few hiccups for Columbia Falls (5-0 overall) this season before the Kats quickly ended the night with a 25-10 fourth set that closed the match, 25-23, 25-13, 20-25, 25-10.

“We just faced the top team in the state,” Fuller said.

Indeed, if championship tournaments are designed to identify the top team year after year, last season’s Class A finale accomplished its goal.

The Wildkats quietly rose through the Class A ranks, earning the No. 3 seed at the state tournament despite losing only three out of 19 matches in the regular season. A year earlier, Columbia Falls had narrowly lost in the state championship, rallying from the loser-out bracket to force a second match with Belgrade before falling 25-18, 25-14, 25-9.

Not this time. Columbia Falls picked up impressive, gutsy wins over Billings Central, Corvallis and Butte Central before taking down Corvallis once again in the title match, 25-17, 25-22, 25-15. It earned the program its first state championship since 1996.

While taking pride in the new championship banner hanging in the gymnasium, many of the seniors met up regularly during the offseason to practice, hungry for another this fall.

“We all came back from defending state champs and that’s really exciting,” senior Morgan Stenger, a 6-foot-1 all-state middle blocker, said. “We want to start from where we left off last year and work from that.”

At the Northwest-Southwest Tipoff Tournament to start the season, Columbia Falls steamrolled the competition, going 10-0 against many of the state’s best. The Wildkats defeated Hamilton, Stevensville, Dillon, last year’s state runner-up Corvallis and Butte Central, last year’s third-place team.

The dominating performance at the tournament was less a statement than an affirmation — the Kats are definitely back.

Jessy Matthews, in her second year as head coach of the Wildkats, has turned the early-season attention away from championship ambitions and instead is emphasizing the small details and motivations that go into every play and every practice.

“We talk a lot about why we play. Everyone of them has something to say about their teammates,” Matthews said. “They just love each other and they come out here and play for each other every single night.”

The tight bond among the girls, who all play other sports together and are close off the court, has created tangible results in matches. Dating back to 2014, the Wildkats have an overall record of 44-6. As a result, the girls are not shy about their abilities and ambitions.

“We like to come out swinging and that’s definitely our advantage,” Stenger said. “Confidence is really a big key for us.”

Columbia Falls has a sizeable net defense — Stenger and 6-foot middle blocker KJ Schweikert. Leading the offensive attack, 6-foot middle hitter Kiara Burlage is having another standout season, along with 5-11 setter Cydney Finberg, one of the tallest and best at her position in Montana. Kaitlyn Casazza, at 5-11, is the outside hitter, while Anna Nicosia leads as libero. Julianna Laycock is the other outside hitter, while Kaevyn Bkaer helps carry the offensive workload as opposite hitter.

In many ways, you could not find a batch of talents, abilities and personalities that melded together better.

The Wildkats are no longer a quiet contender for postseason hardware. The girls know that, and in some ways they like the reputation as Montana’s best.

“We’re expecting every team to play their best match against us this year,” Matthews said. “Teams are so pumped up to play us. But at the same time it also adds that extra level of motivation for the girls to go out and take care of it.”

Watch out for these Wildkats.