By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
An era will end this weekend at the conclusion of the District 6C volleyball tournament. It will be the last time Blue Sky High School will host the tournament as Blue Sky High School.
With Blue Sky and KG consolidating next year, the landscape of the conference and competition will be forever changed.
However, that is the future. There is still the culminating weekend of the 6C season starting with enough tips, tension and tears to last forever as the tourney kicks off this morning in Rudyard.
Actually, to be completely technical, Blue Sky isn't the host team. That would be the Blue Sky/J-I Eagles, after the two schools co-oped a few weeks before the season
"Our girls are definitely excited to host the tournament," said Eagles head coach Jen Dahlke. "It's the last season to win the district tournament as Blue Sky and I know the girls would love to do that."
However, Blue Sky/J-I's main rival, the Chester Coyotes may have something to say about the Eagles' goal of one last title.
Chester, the defending 6C tourney champ, rolls into Rudyard with a perfect 12-0 conference record and the undisputed favorites to win yet another title.
But being unbeaten and the favorite comes with consequences and expectations.
"My husband likes to joke that we should put targets on our backs because everybody wants to knock us off," said Chester head coach Joanne Gordon.
Besides the possibility of being upset, the Coyotes must deal with lofty aspirations that come with returning five starters from last year's Class C State Tournament qualifying team.
"There's a little bit of pressure being 12-0," Gordon admitted "And there is a lot of expectations from our community and school since we return so many people from last year's team that made it to state. But I think our girls are up to the challenge."
Indeed, it would take a minor catastrophe for the Coyotes not to finish in the top four of tournament and advance to next weekend's Northern C Divisional in Belt.
Chester simply has too much talent and experience not to be there.
The Coyotes are led by all-everything player Shawnee Norick, who leads the team in kills.
"Shawnee's our big gun," Gordon said. "She's our best hitter, team captain and floor leader."
Besides Norick, the Coyotes also get heavy contributions from junior middle blocker/defensive specialist Brianne Wolfe.
"We haven't subbed her off the floor once this season," Gordon said. "She's our best defensive player and really has made our defense much better."
Chester also returns its setting duo of Keyla Wendland and JoAnna LaSorte.
With all that talent, the Coyotes have every right to be confident heading into the tourney But not too confident according to Gordon.
"They'll be confident going in," Gordon said. "They won't be cocky, but they'll be confident. They need to be because volleyball is such a game of momentum."
Indeed, with a little bit of momentum any team can make a run that qualifies them for the divisional tournament. There is no better example than last season when Big Sandy and Box Elder - both seeded in the bottom half of the bracket - finished third and fourth, respectively, and surprisingly qualified for the divisional tournament
However, this year Big Sandy, Blue Sky/J-I and Sunburst not only have divisional tourney hopes, but championship aspirations as well.
"A lot of things can happen at the tournament," Dahlke said. "We think we are capable of qualifying for divisional, but I don't want our girls to settle for that. I want them fighting for first."
Blue Sky/J-I was picked to contend for the title this season, and finished in a tie for second with Big Sandy with a 9-3 record.
The Eagles return Kaila Warren, Megan Warren, Maia Aageson, Jourdon Han and Kim Patrick from last year's team that finished second, while adding J-I's Hannah Pimley and Katie O'Neil.
"The girls have really played together as a group," Dahlke said. "The J-I girls have really fit in and helped out. Without them, we wouldn't be where we are at this season."
Sunburst has been a perennial power in the 6C for several years. This year is no different, with the Refiners being a much better team than their 6-6 record indicates.
"Sunburst played Chester tougher than anyone this season, taking them to four and five games," Dahlke said. "They are very capable of winning it all."
The Refiners get solid contributions from seniors Cherry Tomsheck, Rachel Kleinert and juniors Rachel Schulze, Ronni Whitt and Kendra Hovland.
"Tomscheck is tough," Dahlke said. "She's a very smart player and they like to go to her when they need a kill."
Big Sandy is the surprise team of the group of contenders. Under new head coach Sherry Roth, a former University of Montana player, the Pioneers exceeded the odds this year, finishing 9-3 and surprising a few teams including Blue Sky/J-I and Sunburst along the way.
"Big Sandy is getting a lot from their coach," Gordon said. "She does a great job and has them playing extremely hard. They're a really scrappy team. They're not the hardest hitting team, but they play great defense."
The remaining three teams - Box Elder, Rocky Boy and KG - all come into the tournament with matching 2-9 conference records, having picked up their wins against each other respectively
All three teams have played the higher seeded teams tough throughout the season and are capable of pulling off a possible upset.
"You really can't afford to overlook anybody," Dahlke said. "If you do, that's when you get beat."
Said Gordon: "Volleyball is such a game of momentum. You have to avoid mistakes that beat yourself and give your opponents' momentum. Anything can happen once you get that momentum in a match."