BOULDER — It was in the aftermath of a defeat that Jefferson's volleyball squad realized what it was capable of.
The Panthers fell in four sets to Huntley Project in the Class B Southern Divisional Tournament in Red Lodge, but they walked away from their loss to the Red Devils — a perennial powerhouse that has seized nine Class B titles in the past 14 years — feeling that they had demonstrated they have the grit to compete with anyone.
Fifth-year Jefferson coach Mike Majors felt that taking a set from one of the state's premier programs provided an important spark for his team.
“Huntley is the best in the state of Montana by far, and not just Class B, maybe any class," said Majors. "To win a set off them was huge. It gave us a lot of confidence and it showed us that we can play with anybody that will be at the state tournament.”
The Panthers now carry the No. 4 Southern seed and a 16-7 record into the State Class B Volleyball tournament in Bozeman on Thursday through Saturday. It will be Jefferson's second trip to State under Majors and the third overall time the Panthers have gone.
Jefferson will open the tournament against No. 1 Western seed Florence-Carlton on Thursday at 10 a.m. If Jefferson defeats Florence-Carlton, the Panthers will face the winner between Huntley Project and Fairfield in the quarterfinals at 6 p.m.
For Majors, his team's journey to Bozeman will be a fitting conclusion for his senior players.
“I appreciate the fact that we’re going for the six seniors we have," said Majors. "They’ve been in the program for so long and done so much and sacrificed so much that it means the world to me, for them."
The Panthers second trip to State under Majors' direction has also coincided with an uptick in volleyball participation spurred by local club teams. Majors estimated that over 40 people tried out for volleyball this season, a record number for Jefferson.
"There’s just more girls interested in volleyball," said Majors. "The club programs in the Helena area help promote volleyball and I like to think that we’ve raised the level of the game while still keeping it fun."
The strength of Jefferson's offense will rest largely on the shoulders of outside hitter Emily McGinnis, a senior who recently became Jefferson's career kill leader with 440.
“That really meant a lot to me," said McGinnis about setting the record. "Especially in Class B schools that’s kind of a big record.”
Being pushed well beyond her comfort zone by Huntley Project was also a welcome experience.
“It was really fun to get to play them and find out how far we can go," said McGinnis. "It really showed us that we can play against anybody and it showed Huntley what we’re capable of."
McGinnis hopes that she and her battle-tested team can stake their claim in Bozeman.
“I think that we definitely have a shot," she said. "Physically and skill-wise we have what it takes to go to the state championship and I know we believe that we can. I don’t think the other teams there expect it from us because we haven’t been there in five years.”
The Panthers will enter their their opening round match as heavy underdogs, but McGinnis said she and her teammates have embraced the role.
The State Tournament may signal the end of McGinnis' high school run, but her volleyball career will continue next season as she has committed to play for Montana Tech which, on Saturday, won its first Frontier Conference title since 1990.
“I’m really excited about that and I think it’ll help me step my game to be able to play with people I know and played against in high school," said McGinnis, referring to Red Lodge seniors Zoe and Portia Cortner who have also signed to play for Tech next fall.
All of the seniors on Jefferson's rosters have played for Masters for the entirety of their careers except setter Aubrey McMaster, who played for Helena Capital her first three years before transferring to Jefferson after her family moved.
“It’s been great to play with all these girls and we've worked really hard to get here," said McMaster, whose athletic career will continue with Tech's basketball team. "We have great team chemistry going."
With a rematch against Huntley looming if the Panthers upset the top-seeded Falcons, Majors is confident his team will be ready for Round 2.
"We'll have a better mental approach and know we can play with them," said Majors. "We'll have to bring our A-plus game if we face them. But we need to take care of Florence first."
Above all, he's grateful for the opportunity his team will have in Bozeman.
"It's a great time in these kids' life," said Majors. "I hope it's a memory for a lifetime."