CHURCHILL – The Gardiner High volleyball team could not have picked a better opening-round opponent at the Western C Division Tournament, Thursday at the Manhattan Christian Memorial Event Center.
The Bruins went up against a battle-tested team in Twin Bridges and had to endure a first-set loss before rebounding for an 18-25, 25-20, 25-19, 25-18 win.
Playing against such an opponent opened the Bears’ eyes in terms of what to expect through the weekend tournament with two berths in the State Class C tournament at MSU up for grabs.
“I’m really happy with the way our team responded,” Gardiner coach Carmen Harbach said. “They came out a little bit tight but they were able to put those jitters away and start playing their game. I’m proud of them for not getting down at all.”
Kailee Oliverson led the charge out of the gate for the Falcons, scoring points with blocks and kills whenever the ball came within her reach.
But it was the Bears’ defense, something for which they are known, that eventually made the difference in the match.
Olverson’s effort, along with strong serving by Savanna Stewart, helped stake Twin Bridges to an early 6-2 lead in the opening set. The Bears kept things relatively close but couldn’t get over that hump.
Gardiner tied the score at 6-all only to have Twin regain the lead when sophomore Avery George hit Lanie Powell’s serve back over the net and onto an unoccupied spot of real estate.
The Falcons led the rest of the way and only had to deal with a few inconveniences, like when the Bears trimmed the Twin’s lead to 21-18 on a kill by Brook Russell.
Twin scored the next four points to claim the opening set.
The teams reversed roles in the second set when Twin took a 1-0 lead and watched Gardiner come back before pulling away for the win. A hitting error by the Falcons gave the Bears a 2-1 lead in that set, which was tied just once more.
The Falcons suffered a second setback in the second set, though just a temporary one. Middle blocker Riah Edsall tied the score at 2 when she blocked a kill attempt by Abby Dean but she injured her right ankle when she landed. She was helped off of the court but returned a short time later.
The Bears went on an 8-3 run when Edsall left the court and pulled away to tie the match.
Twin Bridges coach Karen Degel said that an injury, like the one to Edsall can change the tone for your team.
“It can, especially when it’s one…your middles sort of take control of the net so when one of your middles goes down, it’s tough.”
The third set took on a whole different personality as each team took turns in leading the other. Twin Bridges led during the early part of the match but never by more than four points.
Gardiner whittled away at its deficit and tied the score at 10-10. A block gave the Bruins an 11-10 lead, and a tip by Sage Cowley snapped a 17-all tie and gave Gardiner the lead for good.
The Falcons hung tough throughout the match but hit some rough patches along the way. The Bears are too good of a team to let those opportunities go to waste.
Twin Bridges played well enough to build leads throughout the fourth set but gave Gardiner opportunities to come back.
The Falcons’ final hurrah came when an Oliverson kill led to a 12-9 advantage over the Bears. Gardiner, however, proceeded to score 16 of the next 22 points to advance to the next round. Most of those late points came when Oliverson was out of the game during the Falcons’ rotation.
Oliverson finished with 11 of the Falcons’ 22 kills and also led the team with eight blocks.
“A hitter and an athlete like Kailee certainly makes you think about how you’re going to play your game but our game plan was to keep running that middle and hopefully our outsides could get the job done,” Harbach said. “I thought they did a really good job. Brooke Russell (team-high 16 kills) played great and Abby Dean (30 digs) played great on the backside. They just hit smart.”
Gardiner continued that theme in its second-round match, showing no mercy to an Arlee squad that beat Superior in its opener. Dean had seven kills to lead the Bears to a 25-14, 25-12, 25-12 win over the Scarlets, with Cowley adding 17 digs and 14 assists. Both were team highs.
The other side of the bracket saw Plains beating Seeley Swan for a second-round shot at Ennis.
Ennis breezed through its first-round match against Manhattan Christian, holding the Eagles to 13.7 points per set in a sweep. The Mustangs breezed past Plains in its second match, 25-23, 25-16, 25-23, advancing to a Friday showdown with Gardiner.
Jourdain Klein led the Mustangs with 14 kills, six digs and seven blocks.
The winner of that match will win the first berth to the state championship.
Twin Bridges will return to action for a Friday morning match against Superior. The Falcons will have to win four straight matches between Friday and Saturday for a berth at next week’s state tournament.
“We can come back,” Degel said. “Volleyball is such that you can come back and win a championship so we can come back. I’m pretty confident that we’ll at least get into the middle rounds.”