State-Bound Spikers

Northwest Montana’s top high school volleyball teams head to Bozeman for this weekend’s state tournament, including one final trip for Libby’s longtime head coach

Cindy Ostrem-Johnston almost retired four years ago.

The head volleyball coach and a longtime teacher at Libby High School, Ostrem-Johnston was ready to step away from her busy schedule and into a much more relaxing routine when she happened upon a group of eighth-graders in the school’s gym.

“For some reason they had quite a few tournaments when they were eighth graders and I thought I was going to be kicking myself if I didn’t stick around,” Ostrem-Johnston said.

So she did stick around, postponing retirement four more years to get a chance to mentor this year’s now-senior class of Jayden Winslow, Emma Gruber, Alli Collins, Linsey Walker, Jessika Jones and Mehki Sykes. Together, those seniors have put together one of the best Libby seasons in recent memory, one that includes impressive efforts at a pair of demanding in-season tournaments, an 18-3 overall record, a district championship and runner-up finish at the Western A divisional tourney.

This weekend, those six seniors, the rest of the Loggers and their venerable coach will travel together one final time, to Bozeman’s Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, for the all-class state volleyball tournament along with three Flathead Valley schools. There, the Loggers will try to send their coach out on a high note that hasn’t been reached in Libby since 1997.

“It’s been a long time,” Ostrem-Johnston said with a laugh. “We’re due.”

Libby head coach Cindy Ostrem-Johnston tries to fire up her team at the Western Class A divisional volleyball tournament in Whitefish on Nov. 1, 2018. Ostrem-Johnston will retire after 26 seasons as the Loggers coach after this season. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Libby Leader’s Last Hurrah

Ostrem-Johnston began her coaching career while she was still playing volleyball, serving as an assistant at Billings Skyview during her last two years at Rocky Mountain College. After a brief stint in St. Regis, Ostrem-Johnston was hired at Libby and has spent the last 26 years as the program’s head coach, a tenure that includes the school’s only state title 21 years ago.

“Winning a state championship, the only thing I can put above that as far as an adrenaline rush is the birth of my son,” Ostrem-Johnston said. “That was one of my biggest thrills.”

The group Ostrem-Johnston has this year may not enter the state tournament as the favorite, at least on paper, but she believes her Loggers have the talent to compete with anyone. Libby finished fourth at the Missoula County Public Schools tournament in mid-October, a field that included a number of Class AA schools, and the Loggers rolled through the Northwest A district tournament one week later.

But at the Western A divisional tournament, Nov. 1-3 in Whitefish, Libby was sluggish from the beginning and never really found its groove. The Loggers were swept by Southwest A champion Corvallis in the semifinals, had to twice fend off feisty Columbia Falls, including a five-set match in the third-place game, and fell in four to Corvallis once again in the championship match. The Loggers and Blue Devils had split their previous four meetings at a pair of in-season tourneys.

Columbia Falls’ Madysen Hoerner celebrates a point against Libby at the Western Class A divisional volleyball tournament on Nov. 1, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

“We struggled to get any kind of rhythm going the entire divisional tournament, it was not our best volleyball,” Ostrem-Johnston said. “I thought we were playing like a well-oiled machine and I was hoping to take it into divisionals and that’s not the way it happened.”

The Loggers still comfortably qualified for the state tournament — the top four teams from the divisional all advanced — and Ostrem-Johnston believes that since her players gritted their way through the tournament in Whitefish they may be better prepared for everything the state event will throw their way.

“I’m trying to look at it as we learned a lot from having to go through that adversity and not playing well,” she said. “We’re saving our best volleyball for the state tournament.”

This year’s Libby team has exceptional depth, with 10 players seeing regular action as part of Ostrem-Johnston’s rotation, including all six seniors. Two of those seniors, Winslow and Sykes, were all-state a year ago, and two others, Collins and Gruber, were all-conference.

“I’m trying to use all of their strengths to our advantage as a team,” Ostrem-Johnston said of her group’s depth. “It’s not so much to rest players but to utilize their strengths.”

The Loggers finished fourth at the state tournament a year ago and will begin this year’s tourney against Hardin on Nov. 8 at 2 p.m. A win would likely set up a showdown between the Loggers and Eastern A divisional champion Belgrade in the second round. The Panthers get Whitefish, seeded fourth out of the west, on Nov. 8 at 4 p.m. Columbia Falls, third in Western A, will tangle with defending state champion Billings Central that same day at noon.

The double-elimination state tournament runs through Saturday, and Ostrem-Johnston knows from experience that an early loss doesn’t necessarily mean the end of any team’s state title dreams. Her 1997 squad lost in the second round, only to bounce back and beat Lewistown twice on the tournament’s final day to win it all.

When the school year ends, Ostrem-Johnston plans to spend some time following her son, Ryggs, a nationally ranked golfer who will begin his freshman year at Arizona State University next fall, but until then her focus remains on the last weekend of her volleyball coaching career, one that she hopes will have a storybook ending.

“It’s going to be whoever puts together three solid days over there, including us,” she said. “Why not us?”

Flathead players celebrate a point against Glacier during the crosstown volleyball match on Oct. 26, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The Bravettes are Back

Flathead has the third-best Class AA volleyball team in the state of Montana, according to the most recent coaches poll.

Unfortunately, the Bravettes are also the third-best team in their own conference.

Nonetheless, Flathead (19-11) is riding high entering this weekend’s state tournament, where they will be making their first appearance since 2015. The Bravettes enjoyed a renaissance season under second-year coach Nicole Fairclough and behind their own deep senior class, officially securing a tournament berth with a sweep of crosstown rival Glacier in a play-in match on Nov. 1.

Flathead has come on strong in the second half of the season, winning eight of its last nine regulation matches and posting a third-place finish at the Missoula tournament during that stretch. The Bravettes’ run even includes a pair of wins against Helena when the Bengals were ranked No. 1 in the state.

The Bravettes starting lineup includes five seniors — Sierra Wilhelm, Jaylyn Fitch, Hannah O’Dell, Madde Boles and Taylor Henley — and Flathead boasts four starters standing 5-10 or taller in O’Dell, Boles, Henley and junior Julia Burden. Boles, Burden and Henley all rank in the top 10 in the state in kills per set, and getting the ball to those big hitters is Wilhelm, who led the state this year with 7.79 assists per set.

Flathead’s state tournament begins Thursday, Nov. 8 at 4 p.m. against Bozeman, with a win likely setting up a showdown against top-ranked Helena Capital, the only Western Conference team the Bravettes did not beat during the regular season.

Before missing out on the tournament the last two years, Flathead won its opening match in 2015 before dropping back-to-back heartbreakers to Billings Senior (four sets) and Helena High (five sets). The Bravettes last won a state volleyball trophy in 2012 when they finished second. Flathead’s one and only state title came in 2001.

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