Flathead, which was a fixture at the Class AA state volleyball tournament for 13 straight seasons, is finally back.
After missing out the last three years, the Bravettes booked a trip to Bozeman for the 2018 event last week by sweeping Glacier in a state playoff match. It capped off a very successful fall campaign for the team.
Flathead (19-11) is the third seed from Western AA and will open state play versus Bozeman (21-7), the second seed from Eastern AA.
Of the eight teams participating, Flathead has the fifth best record overall.
Also advancing are three Class A teams from the Western Divisional — Columbia Falls, Libby and Whitefish.
Six teams from last year’s state tournament are back — defending champion Billings Central, Belgrade, Corvallis, Glendive, Libby and Whitefish.
Columbia Falls and Hardin are the new additions to this year’s field, replacing Stevensville and Lewistown.
Columbia Falls won state in 2016 with a perfect record (23-0). The Wildkats also won it the year before.
Glendive has advanced to state two years in a row for the first time ever.
Belgrade (26-2) hopes to end its final season in Class A with a state title. The Panthers, who move up to AA in 2019-20, were second last year.
Corvallis finished third and Libby fourth.
Belgrade’s two losses were to Huntley Project, a Class B team, and to Class AA’s Billings Senior.
The Panthers first state assignment is versus Whitefish (13-8) at 4 p.m. today.
“Saw them at the Butte tournament,” Whitefish coach Addy Connelly said.
“They have some big, strong hitters. “We need to be ready to go defensively, take care of it when it comes on our side.”
She said her team’s defensive play has been “kind of hit and miss. We are capable of doing that,” she said of playing strong defensively.
“Hopefully that will be the game they bring (against Belgrade).”
Whitefish had a strong showing at districts, finishing second to Libby. The Bulldogs finished fourth at divisionals.
“Always like to be better,” she said of divisional.
“Our goal, at the end of the day, was to get to state and we got here. A lot of teams didn’t make it this far. I’d still like to get a little bit more out of them.”
Whitefish is led by its three seniors — middle hitter Marlee Bender, setter Lauren Schulz and outside hitter Kennedy Grove — who were starters last year at state.
“We need to be talking, we need to be serving aggressive,” Connelly said for the Belgrade matchup.
“Get the ball rolling offensively and defensively for us. That kind of follows.”
Belgrade and Whitefish met in the first round a year ago at state with the Panthers winning 25-17, 25-18, 25-23.
Libby (21-5) is one of five teams having won 20 matches. The Loggers get started against Hardin (15-13) at 2 p.m. today. That winner is back on the court to face the Belgrade/Whitefish winner at 8 p.m.
Libby won the Northwest A district tournament, but came up short versus Corvallis at the Western A divisional last Saturday at Whitefish.
“We did not play our best,” Libby coach Cindy Ostrem-Johnston said of the trip to Whitefish.
“In the long run, I’m hoping the struggles and frustrations we had at divisionals will help us with this tournament.”
Libby has an experienced squad back, which is a big plus for the Loggers.
“I think we have nine out of the 12 players here that were with us last year,” she said.
Six of those are starters: libero Emma Gruber, setter Alli Collins, back row specialist Linsey Walker, outside hitter Jayden Winslow, outside hitter Jessica Jones and middle hitter Mehki Sykes.
“Control their nerves, stay calm and confident,” Ostrem-Johnston said of her message to her players.
“Everyone do there jobs out there and play like they are capable of playing.”
She said if they do that, good things will follow.
Columbia Falls (15-7) faces Billings Central (21-6) today at noon in the first round.
There are two unbeaten teams — Huntley Project (30-0) and Choteau (21-0) — both in different brackets, which could make for an exciting final if both advance that far.
Huntley Project has won 63 straight matches and has appeared in the championship round at state the last nine years.
Florence-Carlton finished second last year.
Belt (27-2), Bridge (25-2), Ennis and Scobey are all back and the main contenders.
Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap (26-8) checks in with an impressive record.
Belt was the runner-up to Ennis a year ago, but won it 2016.
Belt has been in the title match the last three years and is making its eighth straight state trip.
At Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, Bozeman
Thursday’s Opening Round
Defending champ — Missoula Sentinel
10 a.m. — Billings West (18-10) vs. Missoula Hellgate (11-15)
Noon — Billings Senior (25-7) vs. Helena High (21-6)
2 p.m. — Helena Capital (24-2) vs. Great Falls CMR (17-13)
4 p.m. — Flathead (19-11) vs. Bozeman (21-7)
Defending champ — Billings Central
10 a.m. — Corvallis (23-4) vs. Glendive (24-9)
Noon — Billings Central (21-6) vs. Columbia Falls (15-7)
2 p.m. — Libby (21-5) vs. Hardin (15-13)
4 p.m. — Belgrade (26-2) vs. Whitefish (13-8)
Defending champion — Huntley Project
10 a.m. — Choteau (21-0) vs. Roundup (21-10)
Noon — Florence-Carlton (19-2) vs. Joliet (19-10)
2 p.m. — Huntley Project (30-0) vs. Wolf Point (23-3)
4 p.m. — Fairfield (17-8) vs. Deer Lodge (17-5)
Defending champion — Ennis
10 a.m. — Manhattan Christian (19-4) vs. Plentywood (18-8)
Noon — Bridger (25-2) vs. Simms (18-4)
2 p.m. — Belt (27-2) vs. Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap (26-8)
4 p.m. — Scobey (16-4) vs. Ennis (14-1)