By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
The Chester High School volleyball team may not have been at the Class C State volleyball tournament last season, but make no mistake, this isn't their first time on the dance floor.
The Coyotes have a solid volleyball tradition, making it to the state tournament six times in the last eight years. This year's squad is to adding to that tradition.
Chester opens first-round play today in the Fergus High gymnasium against the Western C divisional tournament champion Philipsburg Prospectors at 2 p.m.
The Prospectors have finished the last three regular seasons undefeated, but this is the first year that Philipsburg has made it out of the divisional tournament.
Seniors Erin Ransford, Heather Dunkerson and Jackie Bohrnsen have played volleyball together since eighth grade, and their experience is a key for the Prospectors success.
"These three seniors played as sophomores the first time we went to divisionals after finishing undefeated in conference play, only to be beaten," Prospector head coach Bill Dirkes told the Montana Standard. "I told them then that by the time they were seniors they would get their shot at a state title. They had made a poster at the beginning of the season listing their goals, but it didn't list anything about the state tournament. I asked them after winning divisionals and they said, 'We want to win it all coach.' I believe them."
Unlike Philipsburg, Chester is relatively young, with only one senior seeing significant playing time. However, that senior - Courtney Fraser - brings invaluable leadership and a solid all-around play. In crucial moments, Fraser is the Coyotes' go-to player. She is surrounded by a cast of sophomores and a junior who make up for a lack of experience with vast amounts of talent.
Junior Shawnee Norick and sophomore Mary DeVries are formidable players at the net and can cause plenty of problems for opposing teams.
The sophomore setting duo of Keyla Wendland and JoAnna LaSorte have shown soft hands and mature play in the recent weeks.
Chester's biggest obstacle to overcome may be themselves. The Coyotes imploded in last weekend's Northern C Divisional championship match. With the homecourt advantage and an undefeated record, Chester simply could not overcome hitting errors and miscommunication on defense, allowing the Dutton-Brady Diamondbacks to beat them twice to capture the title.
Overpassing, missed sets, missed opportunities - basically uncharacteristic play - doomed the Coyotes.
Still, few teams can match Chester's all-around athleticism and depth. The Coyotes put six players that can play all the way around a rotation on the floor with each contributing.
But teams that have made it this far have to have some talent.
Perennial powerhouse and defending Class C champion Bridger returns behind all-everything player Kylee Zent, who has accumulated 365 kills and 82 stuff blocks so far this year. Last season, Zent notched 312 kills. In her career, she has nearly 1,000 kills, which ranks her in the top five all time at Bridger. She is attracting interest from schools like Arizona State, Notre Dame, Duke and both Montana schools for track and field.
Bridger has only lost two matches this season - to Class B power Huntley Project, the other to state-qualifier Harlowton. It will be the pre-tournament favorite.
Other teams in the tournament include Southern C runner-up Shields Valley coached by HHS grad Sarah Keller, Eastern C champion Saco-Hinsdale, which is the only team besides Bridger returning from last year's tournament, and upstart Lustre Christian led by two-time all-state hitter Sarah Zerbe.