A few weeks ago at the Missoula Invitational, a lineup of talented Western AA and Western A volleyball teams squared off in a multi-day tournament that was also a valuable tune-up for the postseason.
When it came down to the final championship match, the vaunted and undefeated Missoula Sentinel Spartans faced an unlikely foe considering the caliber of teams that were present.
The Class A Columbia Falls Wildkats had plowed through their opponents, including Class AA playoff contender Glacier, to reach the title match. Sentinel, which has only dropped one set all season, ended up winning, 25-19, 25-8, but the statement had been made — this Wildkat squad can hold its own against any team, no matter the classification.
Last weekend, Columbia Falls made another statement, claiming the Western A championship at home and advancing to this week’s state tournament in Bozeman with as much momentum as confidence. The Wildkats are 17-0 overall this season and looking to defend their title from a year ago.
“Beginning with the Missoula tournament two weeks ago, we started there and haven’t let up,” head coach Jessy Matthews said. “We’re trying to emulate what we did last year.”
Teams from across Montana are converging on Bozeman for the all-class state volleyball tournament, which runs Nov. 10-12 at Montana State University’s Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.
Columbia Falls plays Sidney (11-5) at 10 a.m., Thursday. Whitefish, which placed second at the Western A divisional and boasts a 12-6 record, takes on Fergus (15-11) at 2 p.m. Billings Central (16-5) plays Dillon (11-9) at noon. Belgrade (24-4) takes on Corvallis (12-5) at 4 p.m.
In the Class AA tournament, Glacier (17-8) plays Billings West (15-14) at noon on Thursday. Billings Senior (25-3) plays Helena (14-9) at 10 a.m. Missoula Sentinel (22-0) plays Billings Skyview (19-11) at 2 p.m. Helena Capital (14-9) plays Bozeman (22-3) at 4 p.m.
Glacier placed second in the Western AA standings and earned an automatic bid to the state tournament. Missoula Big Sky eliminated Flathead in a playoff match last week, 25-20, 25-17, 22-25, 28-26. In that match, Tiana Johnson led the Bravettes with 16 kills and 10 blocks. Madde Boles led with 16 digs and Sierra Wilhelm led with 30 assists. Julia Burden had four acres. Flathead’s season ended with a 3-19 record.
The Wolfpack advanced to the state tournament for the seventh time in 10 years. Glacier missed out on the postseason a year ago.
“It’s good to be back,” head coach Christy Harkins said. “It’s good for the program and I’m happy for this crew of kids. Seven out of 10 times, that’s a nice legacy to be leaving for these girls.”
Harkins has a relatively young squad featuring only two players with state tournament experience. Four matches will be taking place at the same time inside the Fieldhouse.
“It’s a great environment and playing atmosphere — we’ve been trying to prepare for that,” Harkins said last week during the team’s bye-week.
“It’s a confined area and you feel like you’re in a little box with everybody there. We talk about all those things and mentally prepare.”
Glacier boasts one of the best all-around players in the state in Nikki Krueger, a powerful outside hitter who recently verbally committed to play for Carroll College next year. Kali Gulick, a 6-foot-2 hitter and only a sophomore, is one of the best blockers in the state.
“We have turned into a team that does very well at the net, so our front row play is definitely a strength for us,” Harkins said.
Glacier holds the distinction of handing Sentinel its one loss in a set this season.
Sentinel stands out as the top contender for the Class AA title, alongside defending champ Bozeman.
In the Class A ranks, Columbia Falls has the target on its back as the tournament favorite. The girls, featuring eight seniors and three players over 6-feet, have certainly earned the respect. At last week’s divisional, the Kats showed their abilities.
In a semifinal match against Whitefish, the squad had 38 kills, led by seniors Kiara Burlage and Kaitlyn Casazza, who had 10 apiece. Burlage also had three blocks and three aces. Cydney Finberg had 28 of the team’s 29 assists. Columbia Falls won 25-19, 25-21, 25-20.
Not ready to be done, Whitefish battled back from the loser-out bracket to defeat Dillon in the third-place match, 25-16, 25-20, 22-25, 25-18. Kate Doorn had 13 kills, Libby Nagler had 36 assists and Serena Hemmingson had 18 digs. The victory set up a rematch between Columbia Falls and Whitefish in the divisional title, and the Lady Bulldogs forced a fourth set before bowing out but securing their second consecutive trip to the state tournament.
In the title match, Morgan Stenger had 16 of the Wildkats 52 kills. Finberg had all 42 assists, and Stenger and Casazza each had two blocks. Casazza added 18 digs and Finberg chipped in three aces.
Columbia Falls has played in the state title match the past two years and won its first championship a year ago since 1996. Dating back to 2014, the Wildkats have an overall record of 56-6.
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