The 2020-21 girls high school sports season was an impressive one for athletes in the Independent Record's coverage area, on both a team and individual level.
It was a season filled with historic achievements, which is why it was nearly impossible to decide between three candidates who will share the award for top girls athlete during the 2020-21 school year: Audrey Hofer (CHS), Paige Bartsch (CHS) and Odessa Zentz (Helena High).
The fact that the 2020-21 high school sports season saw some semblance of a return to normal was win all by itself.
After there were no spring sports in 2020 and co-champions crowned in basketball, every singe sport was back to holding state championships in 2020-21, something local teams took advantage of.
In the fall, the Capital girls finished off a historic three-peat in volleyball, only to follow that up with a second consecutive state championship in Class AA girls basketball.
Hofer, one of the trio of honorees to share the Independent Record's High School Girls Athlete of the Year Award, had her fingerprints all over both of those titles, as did Bartsch, another of the trio to earn the award this year.
Hofer of course, was a key part of the Bruins third straight volleyball championship in her role as a setter, earning All-State honors once again in Class AA, as well as taking home the Gatorade Player of the Year award in volleyball for the second time in three years.
However, her championship contributions weren't just limited to volleyball. In the winter, the CHS senior shined on the basketball court too, knocking down a particularly memorable 3-point shot in the Class AA girls basketball state championship game.
Hofer's three helped the Bruins win a thriller over Missoula Hellgate, a win that clinched a second consecutive championship for CHS and the fifth total between girls basketball and volleyball, over the last three high school sports seasons.
Bartsch, who was Montana's Gatorade Player of the Year for girls basketball, earned All-State honors in both basketball and volleyball, as did her sister, Paige Bartsch, the 2019-20 IR Girls Athlete of the Year.
Yet, this wasn't a normal year for athletic achievement and Zentz capped it off with a memorable performance at the Class AA state track meet in Missoula.
Leading the Bengals to a second-place finish, Zentz did something that hadn't been done in Class AA for 17 years and only four other times by a girl in MHSA history to as she won state titles in the 200, 400 and 800.
Those victories pushed her career total of state titles to five, which is a new Helena High record. On top of her efforts in track, Zentz also put together an all-state season in cross country for the second straight year.
While Zentz, fresh off her junior season, has time to decide on the next steps in her athletic career, the Bartsch twins and Hofer have each signed with Division I programs. Paige will play volleyball at Boise State; Hofer will do the same at Montana State.
Others who garnered honorable mention for girls athlete of the year in addition to Paige Bartsch were Amber Countryman (Helena High), Kathryn Sheridan (CHS), Rachel Van Blaricon (Jefferson), Anna Cockhill (Capital) and Taylor Sayers (CHS).
Here is the full list of athlete as well as their achievements.
2021 IR GIRLS ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
Dani Bartsch, Capital, senior
2021 MT Gatorade Basketball Player of the Year; 2021 IR Basketball Player of the Year; 2020 IR Basketball Co-POY (with sister Paige); Two-time Basketball All-Stater; Led the Lady Bruins' to back-to-back State hoops titles (co-champs in 2020); 2021 Class AA All-Tournament MVP; Led the state in rebounding (10.9 average), No. 2 in the state in scoring (15.4 ppg), No. 4 in assists (3.3 average), No. 6 in field goal accuracy (.527); Two-time All-State in Volleyball; Helped Lady Bruin spikers to three-peat; 47 service aces, 146 digs, 189 kills as a senior No. 2 on CHS' career list for kills (819) and aces (199); Sixth at the 2021 State Track & Field Meet in the javelin; Four career All-State citations (two basketball, two volleyball); 10 varsity letters; 4 volleyball, 4 basketball, 1 track, 1 softball.
Odessa Zentz, Helena, junior
Captured three State track & field individual championships, for a school career record of five individual titles; Only the fifth girl in all-class MHSA history to win the 200, 400 and 800 meter runs in the same State Meet; Also was part of HHS' runner-up 1600 relay, and fourth-place 400 relay, for five all-state medals; Led the State AA Meet in individual scoring with 33.5 points; Led Lady Bengals to State runner-up trophy; Undefeated in the 400 and 800 this year; undefeated for her career in the 400; In 38 lifetime prep races in the 100-200-400-800-1600, she has 34 victories, two second-places, one third, and one fourth.; In cross country last fall, placed 15th at State, helped HHS to the third-place trophy; Four career All-State citations (two in track, two in cross country).
Audrey Hofer, Capital, senior
Two-time (2018, 2020) Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year; 2020 Under Armour All-American selection; 2018 IR Volleyball Player of the Year, 2020 Co-POY; Three-time All-Stater in volleyball; Helped Lady Bruin spikers to three-peat; Posted 482 assists, 116 digs, 25 blocks, 45 aces ; Set school career record of 2622 assists; Part of five State championships (three volleyball, two basketball); 2021 All-Conference basketball guard; 10 varsity letters; 4 volleyball, 3 basketball, 2 track, 1 softball.
Paige Bartsch, Capital, senior
Three-time All-State volleyball; 2019 Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year; 2019 IR Volleyball Player of the Year, 2020 Co-POY; 237 kills, 38 aces, 71 blocks, 121 digs; 6 CHS records, including career aces and blocks; Two-time All-State basketball; 2020 IR basketball co-POY; No.3 in state rebounding (9.8 average), No. 6 in scoring (12.0 ppg), led state in blocked shots (48) and FG; accuracy (58%); CHS records for season and career blocks; Track & field All-State javelin as a senior.
Amber Countryman, Helena, senior
Two-time All-State softball; 2021 IR Softball Player of the Year; 2021 Western AA Defensive Player of the Year (catcher); Led HHS in nine categories, including school records of .531 batting average, 52 hits, 11 home runs, 36 RBIs, 15 doubles, 37 runs, .562 OBP, 1.041 slugging percentage; Also holds Lady Bengal career marks for batting average (.473), home runs (16), doubles (23).
Rachel Van Blaricon, Jefferson, junior
Two-time Class B basketball All-Stater; Led District 5B in scoring, at 17.0 points average; No. 2 in 5B with 8.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists averages; 31 three-pointers and 71% free throw accuracy; JHS record 37 points in a game.
Anna Cockhill, Capital, freshman
All-State softball shortstop; Led CHS in seven offensive categories - school record .500 batting average (tie), and 34 runs, 10 doubles,; 4 triples, 10 stolen bases, . 558 OBP, .728 slugging percentage; No. 2 with 46 hits, 26 RBIs.
Kathryn Sheridan, Capital, freshman
Five all-state medals at State Track & Field Meet; Scored 19.75 of the fifth-place Lady Bruins 56.5 points; Second 100 hurdles, Third 300 hurdles, Fifth 200 dash, Fourth 1600 relay, Fifth 400 relay.
Taylor Sayers, Capital, freshman
Second team All-Conference softball catcher; Led CHS with 3 school records .500 batting average (tie), 48 hits, 36 RBIs; No. 2 with 7 doubles, 2 triples, .515 OBP.