By Ryan Divish
It isn't difficult for Havre High head volleyball coach Bill Huebsch to recall, not so long ago, when the Ponies were one of the most feared teams in Class A.
He was the head coach back then.
After spending some time as an assistant coach in the program, Huebsch retakes the reins in an effort to return the Ponies to prominence.
Huebsch and the Ponies will take their first step in their return to glory with a pair of conference matches against Anaconda and Butte Central on Saturday at the HHS gymnasium.
But that return isn't going to happen overnight. To put it bluntly, the Ponies are in a bit of a rebuilding process this season.
However, Huebsch isn't using that as an excuse and firmly believes that his team can compete this year.
"I think there's a lot of people out there that don't think we'll be very good this year," Huebsch said. "But I think we're going to be much better than people think."
One of the reasons for people's low expectations may be the Ponies size - or complete lack of it. Havre lost a pair of solid tall players in Jeanna McPherson and Sara Suek to graduation. McPherson earned all-state honors last year while Suek, despite a severe sprained ankle, played a significant role.
The Pony roster features just one player - Kristin Evanson - taller than 5-8.
"We're so small," Huebsch said. "My plan is to pass so well we can stay in our offensive system all the time."
Because, as he is quick to point out, the Ponies may be short on size, but they aren't short on speed or talent.
"Our outside hitters, Alicia Overcast and Kristi Owens, are very deceiving," Huebsch said. "They may look little but they can really jump well and have great arm swings. They can finish a lot of points for us."
He has also been pleased with the play of middle blockers Kristin Evanson and Kelsey Smith.
Overcast, Owens and Smith are part of seven seniors that fill the Pony roster which also includes just one junior and four freshman.
"We have an interesting mix with the seven seniors and the underclassmen," Huebsch said. "I was a little concerned about it at first, but they're getting along really well and starting to play together."
Despite the large number of seniors, the Ponies are relatively inexperienced. Only Owens, defensive specialist Brittany Vandersloot and Kari Bolken, saw significant varsity playing time last season. Add to that the fact, that Huebsch will also be starting a sophomore, Alexa Lipp, at setter and the first matches will definitely have their moments of drama.
"With only 11 practice days, and three of those being used for tryouts, we basically have eight practice days to get ready for two conference matches," Huebsch said. "This isn't like the Blue-White scrimmage, these matches count."
Still, Huebsch is very familiar with both Anaconda and Butte Central and a pair of wins on Saturday is their immediate goals.
"Both teams play a very unorthodox style," Huebsch said. "But if we are ready for it, and our serve-receive game is consistent, we should do very well."
But with the exception of styles of play, Huebsch isn't overly familiar with either team's personnel, admitting there wasn't any of their players that really stood out at last year's divisional tournament.
The Central A Division as a whole lost some quality players from each team including McPherson and Suek in Havre, Robin Russell at Dillon and Alicia Mannin, who graduated from Lewistown and is playing for MSU-Northern.
Still, the conference won't be without talent. Lewistown, which won the conference last year, will definitely miss Mannin, but still has the conference's best player in Lesly Richter and solid players in Shaylynn Conroy and Lauren Tognetti. Dillon, who finished second and also appeared in the state tourney, returns setter Valerie Monaco and hitters Tanya Lalicker and Lacey Stoddard.
"You have to pick Lewistown to be the favorite," Huebsch said. "We saw them at Big Sky State Games and they looked very solid. Dillon is a close second, but from there it's wide open."
And where does that leave the Ponies?
"I'd like to think we can be near the top," Huebsch said. "If we can do the things we do really well, and continue to improve on our weaknesses, I think we can be right there at the end of the season.
Saturday's matches begin at 12 and 3 p.m. at the Havre High gymnasium.