HELENA — After a slow start in their Western Conference playoff match against Kalispell Flathead, the Helena volleyball team found its mojo and went on to beat the Bravettes in the last three sets for a a berth in next week's State All-Class Volleyball Tournament.
Helena dropped the first set in The Jungle 25-17 before "scrambling back" with wins of 25-13, 25-21, 25-21. The No. 3 Bengals will enter state with a 14-7 record; No. 7 Flathead's season comes to an end at 7-18.
The hosts opened the night with match's first point, with a kill by Jamie Pickens on a set from Emily Feller. But Flathead soon went ahead 4-3, and built the advantage to 9-4. HHS tied it up twice, at 14s and 15s, but was never able to retake the lead.
The two squads battled evenly until, with Flathead in front 19-17, the visitors went on a 6-0 run to take the first set by eight. Sophomore Julia Burden fired a service ace to get the Bravettes to 23, and moments later on set point, Helena's hitting error put them down 1-0.
"We started out tight, some nerves showed," Helena coach Lindsey Day said. "So I just told the girls after the first set to relax, to get into our rhythm. They were able to focus and came back and competed hard. At times it wasn't pretty, but I'm very pleased with how they found a way to get the job done."
The home team led from wire-to-wire in set two, going up 3-1 on Kaci Lloyd's ace and 11-9 on a spike by Emily Pizzini. The Bengals outscored their counterparts 14-4 the rest of the way, with sophomore Abigail Marcille's spike making it 18-12, and a kill by Pickens getting to set point at 24-13 before a Flathead hitting error ended it.
The third set was arguably the most evenly played, with six ties, although the Bravettes led only once, at 8-7. A dig by Pickens led to one of Vanessa Walsh's match-high 19 kills and 19-15 Helena advantage before the final tie took place at 20-all.
One of the dramatic points occurred when HHS libero Taelyr Lieberg made a fully extended diving save on a ball well beyond the back line, culminating in a point and 22-20 cushion.
Several plays later, Feller slammed the set-winning kill.
Helena led all the way in the finale, streaking out to leads of 14-4 on Walsh's spike and a block by Pizzini at 23-15. Next, Feller's ace made it set-point at 24-15.
But the Kalispell group was not going to lay down. The Bravettes came back with another 6-0 run to reach 21, before a Bravette service error vaulted HHS to state.
Pickens finished with six blocks and 11 kills, Feller set 35 assists, Lieberg posted 20 digs, and Lloyd fired three aces. It was the last night on Harper Court for seniors Lieberg, Lloyd and Hannah Kerker, who had two aces.
Walsh had 11 digs and Pizzini blocked three shots.
Burden, a 5-foot-11 sophomore for Flathead, led her team with nine kills and three aces.
"Flathead made us scramble, and it takes all 15 of us to be successful," Day said.