BOZEMAN — Helena High and Capital High each made it through the first round of action at the Class AA state volleyball tournament on Thursday, but playing the two top-ranked teams in Montana proved too much later on.
Helena opened with a 25-21, 25-15, 25-22 win over Bozeman to advance in the winners' bracket, where the Bengals fell 25-14, 25-20, 25-18 to defending state champion and once-beaten Missoula Sentinel. Likewise, Capital opened with a 25-16, 25-20, 25-20 sweep of Billings West before losing a hard-fought match to top-ranked and unbeaten Billings Senior 25-20, 25-15, 25-20.
"We had a good start to the day with our match against West," Capital coach Rebecca Cleveland said. "Our passing and defense kept rallies alive and we were able to capitalize on quite a few plays.
"In our match against Senior, we had some scrappy rallies and a few solid blocks against their attack. We'll need to adjust quicker defensively against tomorrow's opponents, and protect the serve when we battle for a side out. Tomorrow brings a new day, new opponent, same Bruin team that is read to rise as one."
Helena coach Lindsey Day could not be reached for reaction Thursday night.
In the end, Senior and Missoula Sentinel were right where most thought they’d be. The Broncs and Spartans are certainly where they want to be.
Senior, Class AA’s only unbeaten team, and Sentinel will square off in the undefeated semifinal at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. Friday’s semifinal is set for 6 p.m.
Senior (31-0) handed Sentinel (23-1) its only loss at the Great Falls Invitational. The Spartans, however, played without injured starters Elsa Godwin and Shelby Schweyen, but both are back now. And as happy as Spartans are to be a full strength, Senior coach Sue Dvorak is happy there are, as well.
Dvorak, in her first season at Senior, knows Sentinel is eager for another shot at the Broncs in what is also a rematch of last season’s title match.
“We’re looking forward to that match, too, we’re looking forward to playing them healthy to see how we match up with them,” Dvorak said after her Broncs swept Helena Capital in Thursday’s final match of the day. “It’s going to be a battle of two really, really good teams and really good coaches. I have a lot of respect for Erin (Keffeler) and what she’s done with that team.”
Keffeler said she hasn’t had a complete lineup for a good portion of the season. But she noted the Spartans have 11 seniors, and that’s been a factor in them blending back in quickly.
“These kids have played several years together, and so I think for them to come back is pretty natural,” she said.
Billings Senior 3, Helena Capital 0
The Broncs were down early, but by the midpoint of the first set they had taken control and went on for a 25-20, 25-15, 25-20 second-round win.
Raegan Steiner had 18 kills and Jordan Gilcrist had 17 digs, at least two of which were of the pancake variety. Kelsey Sargent added seven kills and 10 digs for the Broncs.
“Was it the best I’ve seen them play? No. Was it the worst I’ve seen them play? No,” Dvorak said of the Broncs’ two wins. “The girls came out and did what they needed to do. On to day two.”
Senior had eight blocks and limited Capital to 22 kills, six from Sarah Ashley and five each from Katie Culver and Dani Bartsch. Culver posted 13 digs, and Ashley served a pair of aces. The Bruins will play a loser-out match at 4 p.m.
“Overall, a great day and we’re looking forward to tomorrow,” said Capital coach Rebecca Cleveland, whose team beat Billings West earlier in the day. “I definitely like that we took the first match. But Senior is a great team and we’d be happy to see them again in the finals. We have a long road to get there but we’re definitely capable.”
Missoula Sentinel 3, Helena 0
No telling where the Spartans might be in terms of aesthetics had they been healthy all year. Last year’s Gatorade winner, Godwin, has missed time, outside hitter Shelby Schweyen has missed time, and setter Jordyn Schweyen has had to adapt to many different lineups with others missing time as well.
But Keffeler doesn’t sound like a coach lamenting what could have been. Instead, she sounds like a coach who thinks her team has benefited from the injuries.
“Things happen for a reason, you know?” Keffeler said after the Spartans swept Helena 25-14, 25-20, 25-18 in the second round. “It just gave everybody that maybe wouldn’t have seen as much playing time a lot more playing time, and they did an excellent job. It just showed us we can count on you when we need you if we need you, and they’re ready to go.”
Godwin had 15 kills to help Sentinel hold off the Bengals anytime they charged. Helena made several runs at the Spartans, but Sentinel had an answer every time, though the match seemed more competitive than the sweep would indicate.
Jamie Pickens had seven kills and a school-record 11 blocks for Helena, and Emily Feller and Abigail Marcille had four stops each, which brought high praise from Keffeler.
“Respectfully, (Helena) put up a huge wall, they really did,” she said. “They played amazing defense, blocked a ton of our balls, and I’m proud of my team for covering and just staying calm and confident.”
Sentinel plays Senior in Friday’s 6 p.m. undefeated semifinal. Helena was sent to Friday’s 2 p.m. loser-out round.
Helena Capital 3, Billings West 0
No matter what West put up, Capital seemed to have the answer. And the longer the rally went, the Bruins seemed to get the advantage.
Capital swept West – though the Golden Bears put up a fight in each set – 25-16, 25-20, 25-20 to advance to a winner’s bracket match.
Dani Bartsch had 18 digs and Sarah Ashley 17 for the Bruins, which finished with 72. Kinzee Koch (15), Madeline Dawson (13) and Molly Nault (13) had double-digit digs for West, and the 70 team digs helped the Bears rally after getting down early each time.
But Capital always recovered in the end.
“I don’t think our girls are used to seeing such a solid defensive team that constantly gets such good ups and put the ball back to us as hard as they were,” said West interim coach Monica Grimsrud, a former Gatorade Player of the Year for Helena High. “Our girls had to play a lot more defense than they normally do because Capital does such a good job of attacking, even off ugly passes.”
Emily Kidder led Capital with eight kills and three blocks, while Audrey Hofer had 21 assists and four service aces, and Celina Sanchez posted three stops. Catherine Follett had 13 for West, which fell into Friday’s loser-out match at noon against Kalispell Glacier.
“I just hope they bring that same fight and fire tomorrow,” Grimsrud said of her team. “If they play like that from the get-go then we’ll be a really tough team to beat.”
Billings Senior 3, Kalispell Glacier 0
Senior jumped out to a strong start and went on to sweep Kalispell Glacier 25-15, 25-9, 25-22.
Glacier, the fourth seed out of the Western AA, showed some fight at the end of the match, leading 22-20 in the third set. After a well-place timeout by Dvorak, the Broncs closed out the set and the match. But Wolfpack coach Christy Harkins said her team doomed itself early on.
“We really struggled serving and passing today,” Harkins said. “That’s the game. If you can’t serve and can’t pass, you can’t win.”
At least the third set was something to build on for the Wolfpack.
“I think so, it should give them some hope and some energy,” Harkins said. “It should give them some confidence that they can do it … if start serving and passing.”
Senior served seven aces – two each from Kelsey Sargent and Sam Bonenberger. Kola Bad Bear had 11 kills and she added four blocks, as did Lici Zimmerman, to lead the Broncs. Aubrie Rademacher had eight kills to lead Glacier.
Glacier dropped into a noon loser-out match on Friday against Billings West. Senior advanced to a winner’s bracket game later Thursday.
Helena 3, Bozeman 1
The numbers – well, particularly one stat – told the tale in Helena’s sweep of Bozeman.
Helena charged to the 25-21, 25-15, 25-22 victory with 11 kills from sophomore Abigail Marcille and nine from Jamie Pickins, helping the Bengals to 34 overall. Meanwhile, Bozeman, the No. 2 seed out of the East to Helena’s No. 3 seed from the West, finished with 24 kills.
Pickins also had six blocks and Marcille four for coach Lindsey Day's HHS spikers. Emily Feller passed for 27 assists, while Taelyr Lieberg and Kaci Loyd posted 12 digs apiece.
“We were getting some good passes there, but we weren’t able to put the ball down,” said Bozeman’s first-year coach Ashley Obstar. “We had 24 kills in three sets and usually one girl has that by herself on her team. I think that was a big struggle.”
Missoula Sentinel 3, Great Falls 0
No time is really a good time to face defending champion Sentinel. But at 10 in the morning on the first day of the state tournament?
That was the challenge for Great Falls, and to help the Bison prepare, coach Katherine Sunwall had been having her team practice at 6 a.m. earlier this week. The Spartans, though, were just as spry and opened play with a 25-8, 25-17, 25-17 victory.
“We’ve played Sentinel twice this year, so we knew how quick they were,” Sunwall said. “Even though you know it’s coming, it’s hard to stop.”
Elsa Godwin and Cassie North had 10 kills each for Sentinel. Jordyn Schweyen dished out 36 assists. Danielle Devlin had seven kills and Hailey Little 18 digs for Great Falls.
Sentinel moved on to a winner’s bracket game against Helena later in the day. Great Falls, which is making its first state appearance since 2013, will play Bozeman in a loser-out game at 10 a.m. on Friday.
“We reached a lot of goals this year but we want to keep staying alive in the tournament a keep going,” Sunwall said.