By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sports/ email@example.com
There was a time in Havre High head volleyball coach Bill Huebsch's career when it was a given that his Blue Pony teams would appear in the state tournament.
In a five-season stretch in the mid-1990s, Huebsch guided the HHS volleyball program to two state championships and suffered just five Central A losses in that time.
The Ponies last captured a state title in 1999 and finished third at the 2001 state tournament. But in 2002, the wheels seemed to come off the once-vaunted Pony juggernaut as Havre struggled through the regular season and was hastily bounced from the divisional tournament.
However, just one so-called rebuilding year later, the Ponies are the surprise team of Class A volleyball, and are back in the state tournament as they begin the 2003 Class A state tournament today in Belgrade against the Libby Loggers.
"This program has had a lot of success in the past and we have talked all season about getting it back to that point," Huebsch said. "I wasn't sure at the beginning of the season if we could achieve the goal of making it to state, but the girls have worked hard and here we are.
"I just keep telling them that I am so proud of them right now, and I keep making sure that they understand that they played their way here and they deserve this," Huebsch added.
The Blue Ponies come into the state tournament with an 18-10 overall record. Last weekend in Belgrade, they dramatically rebounded from a first-round loss to Anaconda to finish third at the Central A divisional tournament.
While Huebsch is still beaming from his team's remarkable recovery, he won't let his Ponies be content, despite the fact that Havre is predicted to do very little this weekend.
"We have had the goal of making the state tournament all season and now we have done that," Huebsch said. "I think the pressure is off our backs a little. But that doesn't mean that we are going down to state just to be there. There are 26 teams in Class A sports and we are one of the eight best in volleyball and that means something to these kids."
And although the Ponies will certainly be underdogs when play begins this afternoon, Huebsch has some new strategies to unveil and a positive outlook toward what his team is capable of doing this weekend.
"We added a new twist to our offense specifically for this tournament," Huebsch said. "It is something that no one has seen from us. Hopefully, it will surprise some people and take them out of their game plan a little.
"We are very confident right now and we feel like we have built up a lot of momentum," Huebsch added. "I expect teams like Libby will be overlooking us a little bit and that is what we want, because we know that we are here and anything can happen."
Anything might need to happen against the Western A divisional champion Libby Loggers. Libby battled it out with Whitefish for the regular season title and then knocked the Bulldogs off in last weekend's divisional tournament. Huebsch has scouted the Loggers a little and said that they are very comparable to the Anaconda team that the Ponies had two epic battles with last weekend.
"Libby has a very good outside hitter, but they are not the biggest team in the tournament either," Huebsch said. "They play a very uptempo offense, so we will have to be very aggressive serving the ball. If we can serve well and exploit their defensive weaknesses a little bit, we should give them a good match."
Serving is something that has been Havre's Achilles heel up until last weekend.
The Ponies went on a serving tear in Belgrade in which they served at better than 96 percent and recorded 51 aces in five matches. Havre got a huge serving effort from senior Kari Bolken in the state-clinching match with Anaconda last Saturday. Seniors Alicia Overcast, Kristi Owens, Kelsey Smith and Brittany Vandersloot also came up big for the Ponies at critical times.
"I have said it several times this season that volleyball is a game and we are going to commit errors," Huebsch said. "But we are going to have to play our very best volleyball of the season this weekend. We have to have everybody playing well at the same time, if we are going to have a chance to make some noise, because this is one of the deepest state tournament fields I have seen in a while."
To say the field is deep may be an understatement. Besides the Loggers and defending Class A state champion Whitefish, the field also features past state championship teams like Hardin, Dillon and Billings Central. Surprisingly, top-ranked Lewistown is still searching for its first state championship despite its recent years of Central A supremacy.
In other opening round matches today, Eastern A champion Hardin will take on Dillon. That match will be followed by the Ponies' match with Libby at noon. At 2 p.m., Lewistown will take on Whitefish in the following match. That match will be followed by Billings Central and Columbia Falls.
The winners of the four first-round matches will then meet in tonight's quarterfinal matches at 6 and 8 p.m. If the Ponies prevail, they will take on the winner of Hardin and Dillon in the first match of the night session. If the Loggers win, Havre will slip into the loser-out bracket tomorrow morning at 10 a.m.
All of the Class A state tournament action will be held at the Belgrade Special Events Center.