GREAT FALLS – When the history of the University of Providence volleyball program is written, there won’t be any chapters from the 1970s – when the Frontier Conference began crowning champions.
Nor will there be any excerpts from the ‘80s or ‘90s, because college volleyball was a foreign concept on the Electric City campus until 2002, making the Argos one of the newest programs in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, which has been conducting national volleyball championships since 1980.
So when Arunas Duda says his current UP team is the best in the history of the program, the veteran coach speaks from a position of authority, since he has guided the Argos in more than 95 percent of their games.
“I think this is the best ever, because they’re the most complete team,” Duda said recently after his squad defeated Frontier rivals MSU-Northern and Montana Western to improve to 3-0 in league play, 16-2 overall.
“We’ve got great depth, and real good court IQ,” added Duda. “We’ve got players who have accepted smaller roles for the overall good of the team.”
The current UP team was ranked No. 9 in the most recent NAIA national poll, the school’s highest rating ever. Last year’s team, which finished 22-3 and advanced to the second round of the national tourney, was ranked No. 13 in the final poll.
And the Argos haven’t achieved their lofty ranking by playing patsies. Their only two losses were to strong Nebraska opponents Belleview and Doane.
“Belleview was No. 8 (in poll) and Doane is 15-4,” said Duda. “We’re 7-2 against ranked teams this year. It’s a big part of our philosophy to play the best opponents we can, because that affects your seeding for the postseason.”
Preparing for postseason play wasn’t in Duda’s strategic plan when he accepted the head job at the University of Great Falls – the previous name for UP – back in 2004. He was 24 years old and had only two years experience working as an assistant coach at a California junior college.
“I had two options, to take a job as an assistant at Idaho State or the head job in Great Falls,” he recalled. “I think I made the best choice.”
For the first two years of UGF volleyball, the squad was guided by Dick Scott, a former head coach at the University of Montana, an NCAA Division I program. Those teams won few games, and Duda wasn’t much better in his first year, going 7-21.
But the Argos have endured only two other losing seasons since. And while Frontier championships have been few – 2006 and 2019 are the only regular-season league titles so far – the program has gradually gained respect from rivals and recruits.
Duda admits his recruiting priorities have had to change over the years.
“In the early years we were looking for the best physical athletes, and there wasn’t a huge regard for other factors,” he said. “But as we got better we stressed the intangibles, character and good academics. For the last half-decade, we’ve been lucky enough to find players who are both (high talent and character).”
Perhaps the “poster woman” for those assets is Columbia Falls native Cydney Finberg-Roberts, a 5-11 senior setter who was a second-team All-American in 2020 after being named the Frontier and Northwest Region Player of the Year. She wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, partly because she was a member of the Finberg clan – the First Family of Basketball in the Flathead Valley.
Cydney’s father, Cary, was an excellent basketball player who has become one of the top high school coaches in Montana. Her uncle, Craig, was a legend at C-Falls and an All-Big Sky guard at Montana State. Craig went on to become a highly successful hoops coach at Beaverhead High in Dillon before passing away from cancer.
“Because of the family dynamic, I guess I always expected to play basketball in college,” said Cydney, who was an all-state basketball and volleyball player in high school. “But about my sophomore or junior year I realized deep down I loved volleyball more … when I went to pick a school, I considered the coach and the program and decided this was a good fit for me.”
Duda added that “it didn’t hurt that her (future) husband, Shonn, was a wrestler here.”
The current UP team has two other athletes who earned NAIA honorable mention All-American honors last season. Senior libero Sacha Legros, a native of Belgium, was No. 1 in the nation in digs per set (7.4) last season. Sadie Lott, a senior setter from Idaho who has 212 kills this season, also earned national acclaim in 2020.
The Argos also have excellent hitting talent in Jenna Thorne (216 kills), Madysen Hoerner (129) and Zoe Naugle (109). Hoerner is a freshman from Columbia Falls who also flew under the recruiting radar.
Of the 18 athletes on the UP roster, 13 are from Montana.
“We focus on Montana kids first, and a lot of them are overlooked a little bit,” said Duda. “Madysen was certainly one of those. She is extremely athletic.”
Currently, only two volleyball players have been enshrined in the Argos Athletic Hall of Fame – Brittany Prater (2004-07) and Choteau native Cali Buck (2006-09). Duda firmly believes a few of his current players, as well as assistant coach Kelsey Shaver, will eventually join them.
“I don’t see how they can keep Fin out of there. She’s been a godsend to the program,” said the veteran coach.
No Frontier Conference school has ever won an NAIA volleyball championship, and that remains a longshot for the Argos, who hope to greatly improve their national profile over the next month.
“We really would like to avoid being 14, 15 or 16 (seeding) going into the tournament, because then you’re playing the top teams right away,” said Duda. “If we can get to the top four or five, you have a better shot.”
The Argos resume league play Wednesday in Helena against a tough Carroll College team. The Frontier Conference tourney also will be played in Helena starting Nov. 12. After that, there will be NAIA postseason play – and a chance to rewrite the history book.
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