By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
The expectations couldn't be more different for the four District 6C volleyball teams beginning play in today's Northern C Divisional volleyball tournament.
Regardless of expectations, the goal is still the same for the four District 6C teams and the four District 7C teams competing this weekend - find a way, any way, to finish in the top two and advance to next weekend's Class C state volleyball tournament in Lewistown.
It is an eclectic foursome from the 6C with each team traveling a very different path to reach this point in the season.
The Chester Coyotes come into the Northern C as one of the tournament favorites. Besides winning last weekend's District 6C volleyball tournament in Joplin, the Coyotes have the advantage of playing on their home court.
Chester will take on the Highwood Mountaineers tonight at 6:30 in front of an expected large, Coyote-supporting crowd.
"Chester has to be considered the favorite," said Blue Sky head coach Jen Dahlke. "They are coming off winning the district tournament, they're playing really well and they're playing on their home floor."
However, lofty expectations usually come with fair amounts of pressure. Being the favorite in your own building can make the best of teams a little nervous in that opening match.
"There is always some nervousness that comes with any district, divisional or state tournament," said Chester head coach Kristi Pulst. "Nervousness can sometimes be an advantage and be a good thing. We'll see how things go."
To combat those nerves, Pulst doesn't have her team come to the gym until an hour before the match, so they aren't sitting around thinking about being nervous.
Her team has been a little uptight this week during practice, but it isn't nerves, it's excitement. The Coyotes simply want to get out there and get the tournament going.
"This whole week they've been anxious," Pulst said. "They just want to get out there and play."
One thing that concerns Pulst more than pregame jitters is her team's propensity for slow starts. Last weekend in the semifinals, Chester was whipped by Blue Sky handily in the first game of the match, before rallying to win in four.
But getting down a game early is something that Pulst would like to avoid if possible.
"That first game is always close," Pulst said. "We're going to try some motivational stuff to get them fired up early. With rally scoring, anything can happen, and we're young a team so that could cause some problems."
Young? Maybe. Talented? Definitely. The Coyotes have a deep, if not experienced, squad with six players who can contribute on any given night.
"We have six very talented girls on the floor at all times," Pulst said. "A lot of times in Class C, teams only have three or four really good players."
Chester is led by senior-leader Courtney Fraser and junior Shawnee Norick. Fraser is a solid all-around player, while Norick is a force at the net. But the Coyotes also get solid production from a foursome of sophomores. Brianne Wolfe, JoAnna LaSorte, Keyla Wendland and Mary DeVries all contribute heavily to Chester's success.
Highwood is a bit of a mystery to Chester, since the Coyotes didn't play a single team from the 7C this season. However, Pulst did see Highwood play at last year's divisional.
"I know they run a 6-2 offense and they have a fairly young team," Pulst said. "They also have some good hitters in Whitney Blom and Jenny Jordan."
While Highwood poses a threat, Pulst is more concerned with what her team must do.
"We have to minimalize our mistakes," Pulst said. "We have had some on-and-off nights serving this year. Limiting our mistakes is a huge key to our success."
The Blue Sky Eagles come into the divisional tournament a far looser team, than a week ago. The Eagles had a proverbial monkey on their back when it came to getting out of the district tournament. The monkey felt like a two-ton gorilla at times last week as Blue Sky played tight for most of the weekend.
"The girls are just relieved to make it through districts," Dahlke said. "With our early success, there was a lot of pressure to break Blue Sky's jinx of not making it to the divisionals. I thought they played tight the whole weekend until the third game of the match when they finally kind of loosened up and had some fun."
However, with the jinx apparently over, the Eagles will look to have some fun when they take on the Valier Panthers today around 3:30 p.m.
"I just hope they play loose this weekend," Dahlke said. "Practice this week was so much different than last week. It's a whole different atmosphere."
The expectations for the divisional tournament aren't near as high as the district tourney and Dahlke hopes her team plays accordingly. But one thing it must do is play hard even when they it gets down more than five points in a game.
"Our problem seems to be that whenever we trailed by six or seven points our attitudes changed," Dahlke said. "We got down and they couldn't bring themselves or each other back up. It was like we were our own worst enemies. We just seem to lose focus."
Being able to come from behind will be key because there are no easy matches in this tournament.
"Any team who makes it here has to be doing something right," Dahlke said. "We've come from behind before in the past."
While the expectations of Blue Sky have lessened this weekend, they continue to drop for the Box Elder Bears and Big Sandy Pioneers. The seventh- and eighth-seeds during last week's tournament, played solid mistake-free volleyball to sneak into this weekend's divisional. Both teams went into districts with the idea of having nothing to lose and they will keep the same motto this weekend.
For the Bears, it will be the their first divisional tournament appearance in school history and head coach Melanie Jenkins wants her team to savor the experience.
"They're really excited," Jenkins said. "We have absolutely nothing to lose going in because nobody expected we'd make it this far. They're going in relaxed and just want to enjoy their first divisional tournament."
Big Sandy is no different, after finishing in last place in the 6C regular season, playing at the divisional is more than a pleasant surprise.
"I told the girls to go out and have a great time because nobody expected you to be here," Pioneer head coach Lena Leeds said.
But neither coach is willing to allow her team to be satisfied with the divisional appearance. They want to win some matches.
Box Elder will face a very tough, very big Belt squad that has four players taller than 5-10 while the Bears' tallest player is about 5-9.
"They're big," Jenkins said. "We have to play well defensively, because we aren't a big hitting team. If we don't show up defensively, it could be a long night."
Big Sandy will take on District 7C tourney champ Dutton-Brady, which boasts some very tough hitters.
"We're going to try and double block them," Leeds said. "They don't tip much and come right at you."
Like Box Elder, Big Sandy's key to success last weekend was great defensive coverage, played with a ton of intensity.
"We were very aggressive last weekend," Leeds said. "We never gave up on any balls and got most of them up. We need to do that. If they want to fight for every ball and every point, they'll make things tough. We just don't want to settle making it to divisionals. We made it here, we might as well try and win it."