HELENA — With the recent success of the Helena Capital High volleyball team at the Class AA tournament in Bozeman, bringing home the program’s third state championship, Replays takes a peek back at the last title.
Sixteen years ago, coach Mike Burk’s team won its second Class AA crown in 2002, four years after their initial title in 1998.
The season before, when high school volleyball was played in the winter at the same time as boys basketball, CHS garnered the 2001-02 Western AA title with an undefeated 12-0 mark, but then failed to place at the state tournament and finished at 18-7.
The next school year, the volleyball season was switched with girls hoops, and has remained in the fall ever since.
The Bruins repeated as conference champions in the 2002-03 school year with an 11-1 record and was 19-4 overall. The Class AA tournament that year was in Great Falls, but originally scheduled for Billings. It was relocated to Great Falls High because of the teacher’s strike in the Magic City.
“It doesn’t matter, we’ll play any place, any time,” answered outside hitter Lacie Brenton, regarding the change of venue.
Brenton was part of the backbone of the team, along with middle blockers Jessica Petersen and Morgan Dolan; outside hitters Sarah Barnhill and Amie Nickel; setter Katie Polette; and defensive specialist (prior to the libero position) Janae Cunningham.
Brenton reflected the team’s confident mindset when asked to list their strengths: “Our strengths are everything.”
In the tournament opener, the Bruins swept the East’s No. 4 seed Bozeman by identical scores of 25-19, 25-19, 25-19.
The 6-foot-2 Petersen and Barnhill combined for 28 kills in the match.
Then in the quarterfinals, the Western Conference champs lost to host Great Falls, the No. 2 seed from the East 25-20, 27-25, 23-25, 27-25.
The Bruins were denied a Game 2 victory when the official scorekeepers gave the Bison a point instead of Capital, tying the score 19 instead of a 20-19 Capital lead. So, rather than a 25-23 win, Great Falls came back for a 27-25 win.
Down 2 sets to none, Capital bounced back to win the third game 25-23, again coming from behind. Trailing 21-18, Petersen served an ace, followed by Polette’s kill to get even at 21.
Barnhill – who finished with a team-high 19 kills – spiked a point to pull ahead 22-21, followed by Dolan’s line shot for set point at 24-23, ahead of a combined block by Dolan and Nickel to clinch the game.
But then Great Falls won the next game in extra points for a 4-set win.
“That second game should have been a different story,” Burk told the Independent Record. “I think everyone knows that. Great Falls played really well and they deserved to win some games but I wish we would’ve had a chance to play a fifth game.”
After winning the consolation’s fourth-place match to reach the top three on Saturday morning, the Bruins overcame Eastern champion Billings Senior in five sets 19-25, 10-25, 25-20, 25-18, 15-13.
The third set win was marked by Capital's comeback from an 8-5 hole against the perennial powerhouse Broncs. Capital was helped by several unforced errors by Senior through the middle of the game, before Petersen slammed down three kills late to allow her team to coast to a win.
The Bruins gained momentum in Game 4 and stymied a Billings comeback attempt after taking a 16-11 lead. Dolan powered three kills to put Capital up 22-16 and they rolled home from there.
“The late stages of the fifth game showed what CHS was made of,” wrote IR sports writer Tom Stuber.
After forging a 10-8 advantage on an ace by Dolan, the Broncs rattled off five straight points to take what seemed like an insurmountable lead at 13-10. But Petersen brought Capital back from the grave with three straight kills to knot things up. After Barnhill got one to dribble over the net for a point, Petersen iced the match with a kill to advance the Bruins to the chipper.
In the finals, the Bruins has to beat Great Falls twice to claim their second championship trophy in four years. Which they proceeded to do, by scores of 25-17, 25-19, 23-25, 25-13 and 25-16, 25-14, 25-21.
“The Capital High Bruins not only came back from the dead, they became alive and aggressive as they stomped Great Falls High (in three straight sets) to claim the Class AA State volleyball title,” Stuber stated. “Dolan put on a stunning display midway through the second game as she had a stretch of four kills and a block as the Bruins went from a 4-1 deficit to a 12-6 lead.
“Barnhill, Polette and Peterson all made big contributions throughout the day and in the final match.”
For a while it appeared that the Bison might push the match to a fourth game, as they stayed close throughout, only to have an ace by Cunningham give CHS a cushion.
When Nickel came up with a kill the Bruins were up 21-17 and Great Falls couldn't recover. Brenton then spiked the winning kill for the state title.
Capital was led in the title game by Barnhill’s 13 kills and 13 digs. Nickel had four assists and eight digs, while Polette had 30 assists. Cunningham fired four aces and Petersen spiked 10 kills and posted two blocks. Dolan finished with 10 kills and Lacie Brenton had 11 digs.
“Everyone contributed the whole day … everyone on the bench was in, or into, the game, so it was great team effort,” Burk said. “Defensively we got the job done. Defense wins championships and our defense played real well.”
The Bruins finished at 24-5, for a two-year combined mark of 42-12. Their 24 wins lasted as a school-record until this year’s title team went 28-2.
Six of the players went on to play college volleyball, led by Jessica Petersen, at the Division I level for the University of Montana. Dolan played for the Air Force Academy; Polette, Christina Smetana and Veronica Krings, went to Carroll College; and Brenton played for Montana Tech.