Bound for Bozeman

Stalwart Columbia Falls is back at the state volleyball tournament with eyes on a trophy while conference rival Polson believes it is starting a tradition of its own

By Andy Viano
Kiera Brown of Columbia Falls tips a ball over the net in a match against Whitefish at Whitefish High School on Sept. 17, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

There are few Montana high school sports experiences like the all-class state volleyball tournament at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse in Bozeman.

For three days, the 8,000-seat arena that normally hosts the Montana State University Bobcats echoes with a cacophony of bumps, sets, spikes, whistles, groans and cheers. With four matches happening at once, separated by either thin netting or portable bleachers, the discordant sounds of jubilation and heartbreak mix together and reverberate around the arena from morning until night.

It can all be a bit overwhelming.

But the Columbia Falls Wildkats know this dissonant symphony well. One of the most consistent programs in Class A throughout the decade, Columbia Falls had its streak of five consecutive state tournament trips snapped in 2017 only to bounce back and make the eight-team field again last year. The Wildkats finished no worse than fourth in the state every year from 2013-16, culminating with back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016.

Jolandie Brooks took over the program after the 2016 season, and this year has her best team yet, a still-young squad that went undefeated through the Northwest A conference season and finished second at the Western A divisional. And she takes comfort in the fact that her team knows exactly what to expect when they arrive in Bozeman this week.

“It’s going to be huge,” Brooks said. “They’re not walking into a building for the first time; they’re not having to get used to the court or the lights. Once you’ve been there, done that, now you’re here to play volleyball.”

Lizzy Cox, meanwhile, is venturing into the unknown. The second-year Polson coach, who grew up in an out-of-state volleyball hotbed and played collegiately at Eastern Washington University, has never so much as watched a state tournament in Montana, but she hopes this year’s trip will be the first of many for her resurgent program. As a player, Cox led Colfax High School in Washington to four top-three finishes and a pair of state titles, and she wants that kind of success to eventually be the norm for a Polson program that has never won a state championship.

The rebuilding project is still in its early stages, but this year’s team took an important first step. The Pirates are part of the state tournament field for the first time since 2011, and Cox has been studying maps of the court layout and leaning on a pair of assistant coaches with state tournament experience to prepare her squad for everything the tournament will throw at them, especially since they play in the event’s earliest first-round slot at 10 a.m. on Thursday.

“It would be nice to get in there (Wednesday night),” Cox said. “Just to see what it looks like.”

Kiera Brown, left and Dillen Hoerner of Columbia Falls leap to block a ball during a volleyball match against Whitefish at Whitefish High School on Sept. 17, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Polson came up just one win short of the state tournament field in Cox’s first season at the helm, falling in a loser-out match at the Western A divisional with a trip to Bozeman on the line. It was immediately after that loss, Cox said, that the seeds were planted for this year’s run.

“I still remember on the bus after that game, the girls just committing,” she said. “The juniors and sophomores on that team, right after that last game, said we don’t want to feel like this again. We want to go to the next level.”

In order to get to that level, many of Polson’s returners remained involved in the sport through the offseason, joining club teams and attending camps, something that was a rarity in previous years. That extra work has built a more confident squad that leans on its two best front-row players, outside hitter Maggie Todd and middle blocker Misty Tenas. Todd, just a junior, leads the team with 165 kills this year (2.9 per set) and plays capably in the back as well with 149 digs. Tenas is the Pirates’ most reliable attacker with a .238 hitting percentage and 123 total kills, and the senior leads Polson with 29 blocks, more than twice as many as any other player.

Cox also believes that the consistently formidable Wildkats have played a role in her team’s growth. Even though Columbia Falls swept Polson in both regular season matches this year, Cox said her team came into those battles with a different attitude.

“Columbia Falls has been a really great team and (in the past) it was, ‘We can’t beat them,’” Cox said. “But we never should be afraid of anybody … Polson volleyball is here, we’re good athletes and we can put it together. I think maybe that was the shift.”

The Pirates (11-7) played their way into the state tournament by finishing fourth at the Western A divisional in Dillon last week. Polson beat the host Beavers in a tight five-set match in round one and clinched a spot on Nov. 9 by taking down Stevensville in four sets. The Pirates will open the state tournament with a tough test against Eastern divisional champ Billings Central on Nov. 14 at 10 a.m.

Hannah Sckweikert of Columbia Falls sets the ball in a game against Whitefish at Whitefish High School on Sept. 17, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Columbia Falls (15-3) was second at the Western divisional and begins its state tournament at noon on Thursday against Hardin. The Wildkats, who dropped only two sets all year in conference play, lost just three five-set matches all season, all of them against Corvallis. The Blue Devils swept the Wildkats twice in Dillon to win the divisional title, but Brooks and her team are still very much in the running for a top-three finish at state.

Senior libero Angellica Street anchors a Columbia Falls team with just two seniors, and the two-time state javelin champion has put together her best volleyball season this fall. Street is averaging more than 17 digs per match and has committed only seven dig errors all season, and she’s even better on serve receives, with an average of more than 21 per match and just 11 errors.

“Her ability to read the ball and read the hitters, and her serve receive, is usually what sets us up for success in the back row,” Brooks said.

Fellow senior Kiera Brown is one of three hitters in front of Street who have racked up more than 100 kills this season for the balanced Wildkats. Juniors Madysen (168) and Dillen Hoerner (137) have the top two totals on the team, followed by Brown (116). All three are hitting better than .261 on the year and Columbia Falls has an impressive .263 hitting percentage as a team, a balance that highlights how in sync the Wildkats are with one another.

“These girls have been playing together for quite some time,” Brooks said. “We’ve been building this crew for the last two years now.”

The spotlight will be on the Wildkats and Pirates this year at least in part because they are the only Northwest Montana schools in the field, in any class. Whitefish, their Northwest A counterpart, is missing from the field for the first time since 2014, and Kalispell is without a representative in this year’s Class AA tournament, which has not happened since 2002.

Polson, meanwhile, is soaking up as much of the spotlight as it can. Cox is working to organize a proper sendoff for the Pirates on Wednesday, a trip she hopes includes stops at the local elementary and middle schools in an effort to lay the foundation for a tradition like the one she grew up in. After all, the last time the Pirates left town for the all-class state volleyball tournament, the oldest players on this year’s team were in fourth grade.

“Hopefully Wednesday the band is going to be out there and I’m hoping to get a little sendoff out of town,” Cox said. “I really want the younger schools to see all of my girls head off to state so they can say, ‘That’s really cool.’”

To view the tournament brackets for every classification at the 2019 state tournament, visit www.mhsa.org.

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