Havre Daily News Sports Editor
The Havre Blue Ponies may have won the 2005 Central A regular-season volleyball championship. But that doesn't guarentee the Ponies anything more than the No. 1 seed in this weekend's Central A divisional tournament in Havre.
When the tournament gets under way Friday morning at the HHS gymnasium, the Ponies and everybody else in the league will start their season over, with a race to see who gets one of two coveted berths in the Class A state tournament.
“It is a brand new season where everybody is 0-0,” Havre High head coach Bill Huebsch said. “As of this point, this tournament is up for grabs and it doesn't matter what anybody did in the regular season.”
Despite the fact that this year's Central A tourney is one of the most balanced in years, the Ponies should still be favored to not only reach Saturday night's championship match, but to capture the 2005 Central A championship. That feat is something a Havre High team hasn't done in six years.
“We have achieved a lot this season,” Huebsch said. “Hopefully we can go out this weekend and stay focused on each match we play and not look ahead. If we do that and we execute, we should be in good shape.”
Havre is also in good shape because of junior Lena Suek, who has had a breakout season. Suek led the league in total kills and hitting percentage this season, and she is in the top 10 in digs. The Ponies have dominated the Central A this season, losing just once - to Lewistown last weekend in Havre. The match with the Eagles was the only time Havre went five games with a conference foe, and in the Ponies' nine conference wins, they were pushed to four games only once.
“At this point our kids know what they have to do,” Huebsch said. “They have played very good volleyball lately and they are prepared for this tournament.
“There isn't anything else we can teach them,” he added. “The key to us being successful this weekend is execution and mental focus. If we play the way we're capable of, we should have a very good tournament.”
Of course, there are a few other teams in the field that might just have something to say about who goes to the state tournament next weekend in Bozeman.
Lewistown is the defending Central A champion and two-time defending Class A state champion. The Eagles have very few players back from those championship teams, and that inexperience showed throughout an 11-9 season. But the Eagles have come on strong as of late, and they clawed their way to a second-place finish in the Central A standings, making them a strong contender for the Central A title.
“They are playing very well right now,” Huebsch said. “They are a tough team to figure out because they have been hot and cold this season. But when they are on, they are really good.”
Belgrade is the other team that will likely figure into the championship equation this weekend. Unlike Lewistown, the Panthers got off to a quick start in conference play this season. But a couple of losses over the last two weeks slid the Panthers back to the No. 3 seed in the tournament.
Still, Belgrade is one of the most athletically gifted teams in the tournament, and they have a dangerous hitter in Jessica Hespen.
“Belgrade is a very good team, and they have so many talented players,” Huebsch said. “They are a tough team to defend because they are so talented offensively. If they meet up with Lewistown, that should be a very entertaining match.”
With Havre, Lewistown and Belgrade expected to battle for the two state tournament berths, the rest of the field will be trying to play the role of spoiler.
Browning and Livingston are both highly improved teams this season, and both have dangerous offensive weapons- Jenna Skunkcap for Browning and Sara Meyer for Livingston. The two teams will square off in the opening round. The winner will present a very tough first-round match for the top-seeded Blue Ponies.
Butte Central has won just one conference match all year. But that is due in large part to the loss of several seniors who led the Maroons to a solid finish at the Central A tournament a year ago. This year's version of the Maroons is young and inexperienced, but they still play the BC brand of volleyball, which is tough defense and scrappy all-around play. That fact makes them a tough out for anybody they face this weekend.
“There is a lot more parity in this tournament than there has been in years past,” Huebsch said. “There isn't a completely dominant team like Lewistown was in the past.
“That makes this tournament very interesting and it puts a lot of pressure on every match, because it has been proven this season that anybody can beat anybody if they play well,” he said.
That has only happened once to the host Ponies all season. Since HHS opened the regular season with a three-game win over Butte Central back in August, it has served notice to the rest of the league that Havre is not only hosting the Central A tournament this season, but intends to hoist the championship trophy.
“It has been a goal of ours all season long,” Huebsch said. “We just have to go out and focus on one match at a time.
“We also have to be very mentally tough and very fundamentally sound in all areas,” he added. “If we can do that and execute offensively, I like our chances this weekend.”
The tourney opens Friday morning at 10 a.m. with Browning taking on Livingston, followed by Belgrade and Butte Central. At 2 p.m., Havre will face the winner of the Browning/Livingston match. At 4 p.m., Lewistown will face the winner of the Belgrade/Butte Central matchup. Loser-out matches are scheduled for 6 and 8 p.m. on Friday.
Saturday's action gets under way at noon, and the tournament will conclude with the championship match at 8 p.m.