By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sports/ firstname.lastname@example.org
For the last two weeks, the Chinook Sugarbeeter volleyball team has been labeled the favorite in postseason play. The Beeters entered District 2B play with just three losses on their resume and just one more when they began divisional tournament play last weekend in Malta.
Now, Chinook will head to Billings with both the district and Northeast B divisional titles in hand and will once again be labeled as favorites. The Beeters will open play this afternoon at the Class B state volleyball tournament, taking on the Manhattan Christian Eagles of the Southern C division.
Chinook had to fight through the loser's bracket last Saturday in Malta after a surprising loss to Glasgow in the semifinals. But the Beeters responded behind huge efforts from Whitney Lybeck and Kayla Erskine to win three straight matches, including a defeat of defending divisional champion Choteau and two-straight wins over the Scotties.
"We didn't win the divisional tournament like we planned," Chinook head coach Jay Eslick said of the loss to Glasgow. "But the kids responded and played some of their best volleyball of the season to come back and win the divisional championship."
And while the Beeters have been severely tested by a surprisingly tough Glasgow team this season, Eslick still feels comfortable being tagged as one of the favorites to win a state championship and about how his team is playing coming into today's action.
"I think that having a difficult road at divisionals will help this team," Eslick said. "We have struggled with our focus and intensity at times. After the last couple of weeks of having to battle with teams like Glasgow and Malta, the kids have a renewed amount of focus and confidence.
"We definitely think that if we play like we're capable of, we should be in the hunt this weekend."
Being in the hunt is just part of Eslick's goals. The Beeters are loaded with senior talent that fell short of making a trip to the state tournament last season and those unfulfilled goals are still fresh in the minds of Eslick and his players.
"We had a very bitter taste in our mouths from divisonals last season," Eslick said. "We talked about it last week in Malta, and we did not want to have the same thing happen to us again.
"Now that we are here, we have to reset our goals," he added. "we aren't just here for a trip to Billings. We want to go down there, play well and bring a trophy home."
Manhattan Christian will be the first obstacle in the quest for a trophy. The Eagles come into Billings as the third-place team from the Southern C divisional. Eslick said that preparing for them has been very similar to preparing for the Beeters' nemesis - Glasgow.
"Manhattan Christian is very comparable to Glasgow and Malta," Eslick said. "They have an outstanding middle hitter and I expect they will give us a very difficult match."
If the Beeters get past the Eagles this afternoon, they will face the winner of the 4 p.m. Missoula Loyola/Townsend matchup tonight at 6 p.m. If Chinook falls they will slip into loser-out play tomorrow at noon.
In other first round matches, Southern B champion and top-ranked Huntley Project will take on Glasgow, while Eureka will square off against Choteau. The winners will then meet tonight at 6 and 8 p.m., respectively.
"I think that Huntley Project has to be a definite favorite this weekend," Eslick said. "But if we can play like we did at the end of the divisional tournament and we utilize our strength at the net in every match, then I feel really good about our chances.
"This is the time of year that you want to be at your best and I feel like we are," Eslick added. "I am just really proud of our entire team for having the courage to fight back last weekend and get here so that we have a chance. Now we'll try to play at our best and see what happens."
All of the action at the 2003 Class B state volleyball tournament will take place at the Al Bedoo Shrine Auditorium in Billings.