By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sports/ firstname.lastname@example.org
In August, Havre High head volleyball coach Bill Huebsch knew he had a very young and inexperienced team. He wasn't quite sure where it would be in November come tournament time. As Huebsch and the Ponies get ready to travel to Livingston for the 2004 Central A volleyball tournament, the picture is a little more clear.
The Ponies come into Livingston having won six of their final eight matches this season and are finally becoming the consistent volleyball team he hoped for. To Huebsch, the fact that his team is peaking at exactly the right time is a product of a process that has taken the entire season.
"If you look at where we were at the beginning of the season, then you can see just how far we have come," Huebsch said. "All of our hitters are hitting for a positive percentage now and that is something we struggled with for a long time."
But the growth isn't just in the hitting statistics.
"I think we have also really matured mentally as a team and things have really come together as a result of that," he said. "Considering that we only have one senior on this team and we went 7-3 in our conference with mostly young kids, the girls should be very proud of that accomplishment. I know I am proud of them."
The 7-3 record that Huebsch spoke of in conference play was good enough to earn Havre a second place finish in the final Central A conference regular season standings. Lewistown finished first with a perfect 10-0 mark for the second straight season.
Both the Ponies and Eagles will have a bye in today's first round, and both teams will have the inside track on returning to the Class A state tournament. Havre is looking to return to the state tournament for the second consecutive season, while the Eagles are looking to defend their 2003 Class A state championship.
But just because the Ponies have a first round bye doesn't make the road to state easy by any means. Havre will await the winner of the Butte Central/Browning first round match and either way, Huebsch knows that every match they play will be difficult with two state tournament berths on the line.
"That is a very interesting first-round match," Huebsch said of the Browning/Butte Central matchup. "No one can afford to overlook Browning because they are playing their best volleyball of the season right now, and they have a great player in Jenna Skunkcap.
"And I think that Butte Central is probably one of the most dangerous teams in the tournament because of their tenacious defense and their solid passing," he added. "We have had two great matches with them this season, so we know that a match with them would be very tough."
While Havre waits for the winner of the Browning/Butte Central matchup, Lewistown will await the winner of the first match of the day which features Belgrade taking on Livingston. Although the undefeated Eagles are strong favorites to capture yet another Central A title this season, Huebsch believes that his own team cannot be counted out either.
Havre and Lewistown have squared off twice during the regular season with the Eagles winning both times. But the Ponies did manage to beat Lewistown in a best two out of three match at the Electric City Invitational in Great Falls back in September. That match gave the Ponies the confidence that they can unseat the Eagles in the Central A tournament this season.
"We are not looking ahead to playing Lewistown," Huebsch said. "But I know the girls would like another opportunity to play them.
"We have competed with them this season even though they beat us," he added. "I think the difference between this Lewistown team and their teams of the past, is that in our matches we are beating ourselves more than they are beating us. They are still a very good team, but I believe that we can play them this year. In past years, they have just been a much better team than we were."
For Havre to get back to the state tournament this season, it will have to win at least two matches this weekend. The Ponies will also have to do something they haven't done very often this season, which is be consistent in all phases of the game for an entire match.
Havre is among the league leaders in team serving and most defensive categories, but it is closer to the bottom of the league in hitting percentage and total kills. For the Ponies to be successful this weekend, Huebsch said that everything must come together and stay there throughout the tournament.
"Terminating points is something we have to have this weekend," Huebsch said. "That is the same for everybody. I told the girls that we have to serve well and pass the ball well, and if we do that, the kills will come. We have to maintain a level of consistency throughout the tournament. If we do that, we should be fine."
Huebsch has also changed his lineup in the last week bringing up 6-0 freshman Signe Hillson to give the Ponies a taller presence at the net. Hillson performed well in her first varsity matches last weekend in Havre. Huebsch said that her presence in the lineup should give Havre a much needed block at the net.
"We thought that she would help us with our block and she has done that so far," Huebsch said of Hillson. "We only had 46 total blocks this season and some players get more than that in a season.
"Bringing Signe up also gives us a rotation that most of the teams in this tournament haven't seen from us," Huebsch added. "Hopefully that will work to our advantage this weekend."
Besides Hillson, Havre still gets steady contributions from middle blockers Sjanetee D'Hooge and Liz Handy, along with outside hitter Lena Suek and Carmen Neuens. Setter Alexa Lipp is among the leaders in Central A in assist, while Kelsey Evans brings defense and serving.
"We are feeling pretty confident coming into this tournament," Huebsch said. "We have put together a nice winning streak the last couple of weeks. I now the girls are very fired up and ready to play this weekend."
The 2004 Central A volleyball tournament will run through Saturday evening with the first championship match scheduled for 6 p.m. All of the action will take place at Park High School in Livingston.