By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsemail@example.com
They're back. Many fans might not have noticed because time seems to fly these days, but the Havre High volleyball team hasn't played a match in the HHS gymnasium in over a month.
Instead, the Ponies have been mired in a month long road trip that has seen them travel to Livingston, Great Falls, Browning and Butte. However, Havre will finally return home tonight for a Central A conference showdown with its biggest rival.
The Ponies will square off against the defending Class A state champion Lewistown Eagles tonight at 7 p.m. as part of a three -match weekend that also includes a home match with Cut Bank on Friday night and a trip to Great Falls to take on the Class AA Great Falls High Bison on Saturday afternoon.
"We're really excited to be playing at home this week," said HHS head coach Bill Huebsch. "We basically had a road trip the entire month of September, so the kids have been looking forward to this match all week."
Not only are the Ponies excited to be at home tonight, but they are fired up to welcome the vaunted Eagles. Since Havre opened the season with a win over Butte Central in late August, they have gone 7-4 and 4-1 in conference play.
Lewistown brings a 7-3 overall record and a perfect 5-0 mark in conference play.
Tonight's match-up is the culmination of two teams who have been on a collision course for weeks with top billing in the Central A standings on the line, as well as the easiest road to the Class A state tournament.
While Huebsch realizes the importance of the match to the Central A race, he also believes that it has several other implications.
"I definitely think that this match will have a lot to say about who goes to the state tournament," Huebsch said. "There are only two spots up for grabs at divisionals and these are two of the top teams in our conference, so this match is big.
"I also think this match will be a measuring stick for us," Huebsch added. "Lewistown is the defending Class A champions and they are still a very solid team, but they aren't the same team as they have been in the past. So we'll find out a lot about ourselves and where we are."
Indeed, the Eagles lost a plethora of all-state players from last season's championship team. Only Claire Slagel, Kayla Horacek and Devin Nelson are main returning contributors off last year's squad. Still, the Eagles are the team to beat in the Central A.
However, the Ponies and Huebsch feel that they are catching up with Lewistown. Havre faced the Eagles twice in non-conference tilts at the Electric City Classic in Great Falls last month, with each team winning a match. Huebsch believes that his team is getting closer to unseating Lewistown, but he knows that his young team has a long way to go as well.
"We found out in Great Falls that we match up with them very well," Huebsch said. "They don't quite have the dominating players up front that they have had in the past and overall they are not as big as they once were.
"But Lewistown is still a very good team and it will take our best effort to beat them," he added. "We have talked about coming out and playing with a lot of emotion and intensity right away. We'll have to serve tough and terminate points when we have opportunities."
The same things that it will take to beat the Eagles are the same things the Ponies have been working on all season, with improvement coming gradually.
On Friday night, Havre will host the Cut Bank Wolves from Class B and Saturday afternoon they will visit the Great Falls High Bison. Both teams will be tough opponents for a growing Havre High team.
Huebsch said that the same things that apply in the Lewistown match will be needed for the rest of the weekend if the Ponies are to be successful.
"We need to serve well and hit the ball with authority every match," Huebsch said. "Cut Bank will be a very tough team and we know that GFH is very good. This will be three very tough matches and we will have to do all those things well in order to get some wins this weekend."
Another factor that will play into Havre's success not only this weekend, but for the rest of the season, is the Ponies mental state of mind. Havre has experienced many peaks and valleys this season, which is something Huebsch expected with so many first year varsity players.
Havre has been a streaky team in the hitting category, while being a very good serving and defensive team. Huebsch said that the hitting is coming along and he sees a team that is starting to become complete.
"I like where the kids are at right now," Huebsch said. "The kids are relaxed and eager to play. We have had a very good week of practice and they are hitting the ball really well in practice.
"Now we need to come out against Lewistown with emotion and desire," Huebsch added. "Hopefully those things that are going so well in practice will carry over into the weekend."
Tonight's match between Havre and Lewistown will get under way at 7 p.m. at the Havre High gymnasium. The Cut Bank/Havre match is scheduled for the same time on Friday night.