Havre Daily News Sports Editor
It was one of those moments that could only be described as bittersweet. Despite having just lost the Class A state volleyball championship to Whitefish on Saturday night in Bozeman, the Havre Blue Ponies had just completed one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent memory.
The Ponies, who did not qualify for the 2004 state tournament, finished off a remarkable year with almost the exact same team. They reached the state championship match before finally falling to the Bulldogs by scores of 25-20, 25-21 and 25-12 in the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse at Montana State University.
It was Whitefish's second straight Class A state championship.
It was also Havre's first state trophy since 2002, when the Ponies finished third.
“It was a very special night for our team and this program,” Havre High head coach Bill Huebsch said. “I know the kids were disappointed after we lost to Whitefish. But I told them that when they look back on this season, they will realize just how successful this season was.
“They accomplished almost every goal they set for themselves this season,” he added.
The manner in which the Ponies reached the state title match was no less dramatic. After falling to Hardin in the quarterfinals on Thursday night, Havre rallied to defeat Lewistown and Corvallis on Friday. Those two wins assured HHS of a trophy over the weekend. But in order to reach the state title match, the Ponies would have to find a way to get by Hardin on Saturday morning.
The Bulldogs defeated Havre on Thursday after the Ponies grabbed the first two games of the match. After losing to the Bulldogs, Huebsch said, other teams may have folded, but not the 2005 Blue Ponies.
“The way we lost to Hardin, it would have been easy for this team to quit,” Huebsch said. “But I guess that is what I am most proud of this team for. They are as mentally tough a team as I have ever coached. They just always seem to take things up to another level when they have to.”
On Saturday morning the Ponies did just that. They dropped the opening game to Hardin, but cruised to wins in the next two games by scores of 25-19 and 25-16. The fourth game was close throughout, but with the opportunity to either take third or play for the state championship on the line, Havre found a way to put the Bulldogs away in game four and move on.
“After the first game, the girls really stepped it up a notch,” Huebsch said. “It was something we talked about before that match.”
He added, “The rest of the match they just had that look in their eye that they weren't going to lose. And they just really played great volleyball the rest of the way.”
Lena Suek and Alexa Lipp were outstanding in the match with Hardin. Suek racked up 16 kills and 3.5 blocks. Lipp had 41 assists and three service aces.
“It was an emotional win for these kids,” Huebsch said. “Knowing that they were going to play for the state championship was very exciting, and I told them to just savor the moment because it is a very rare and special occasion. I was just so proud of them for coming back and beating Hardin the way they did.”
Unfortunately, the emotion spent against Hardin hampered Havre's chances against the Whitefish juggernaut. The state championship match took place less than 10 minutes after Havre finished off Hardin, and the Ponies played admirably in the first two games of the match.
Havre actually led in both games, but could never put Whitefish away. By the time the third game was halfway over, it was evident that Havre did not have enough left to beat the Bulldogs once, let alone twice, if they were to win a coveted state title.
“For anybody to beat Whitefish two times in a row is a very tall order,” Huebsch said. “We played right with them the first two games, but we had some errors that really cost us late in each game.
“You really have to give Whitefish all the credit in the world,” he added. “They are a phenomenal team, and even when we got a lead against them, they just kept coming at us. They played great.”
Signe Hillson paced the Ponies in the championship match with a team-high eight kills. Lipp was again brilliant with 26 assists. Kelsey Evans led the HHS defense with nine digs.
“Everybody on this team contributed to our success this weekend,” Huebsch said. “For the most part everybody played really solid volleyball throughout.
“But Alexa Lipp was basically perfect all weekend,” he added. “She was everywhere for us and she just had a monster weekend. She has had an amazing season and she finished the year with over 1,000 assists, which is almost unheard of.”
While the Ponies did not taste the highest level of success this weekend, they did cap off a season they won't soon forget. Aside from the second-place finish at the state tournament, Havre also won the Central A regular-season title and divisional tournament championship. The Ponies lost just two matches on their home floor, won the Windy City Invitational tournament and competed at a very high level against Class AA teams.
This season has been a remarkable turnaround for Huebsch, culminating with a fantastic run at the state tournament.
Huebsch said his kids deserve all of the credit.
“The kids came into this season with a whole different attitude, and they worked so hard to get to this point,” he said. “We knew this summer that we had a chance to be a pretty good volleyball team, and we knew we had a chance to have a pretty special season.
“But knowing and executing are two different things, and these kids went out there all year and achieved their goals,” he added. “They just refused to be disappointed this season. And even though we didn't win a state championship, I know they are very proud of what they have done this year, and I am extremely satisfied with what we did as a team this season.”
Whitefish def. Havre
25-20, 25-21, 25-12
Whitefish - Aces: 7 (Mandy McFadden 3). Kills: 44 (Ashley Ferda 12). Assists: 44 (Mandy McFadden 41). Blocks: 11 (Tracy Schwada 6). Digs: 79 (Jessie Conners, Ferda, 17).
Havre - Aces: 3 (three with one). Kills: 27 (Signe Hillson 8). Assists: 26 (Alexa Lipp 26). Blocks: 2 (Liz Handy 1). Digs: 42 (Kelsea Evans 9).
Havre def. Hardin
19-25, 25-19, 25-16, 25-23 (lo)
Havre - Kills: 48 (Lena Suek 16). Assists: 44 (Alexa Lipp 41). Aces: 6 (Lipp 3). Digs: 65 (Kelsey Evans 15). Blocks: 9 (Signe Hillson 3.5, Suek 3.5).
Hardin - Kills: 39 (Cassie Hodges 15). Assists: 33 (Darcy Torske 25). Aces: 6 (Torske 3). Digs: 67 (Sarah DeVore 21). Blocks: 10 (Hodges 5).
Havre def. Lewistown
25-20, 25-21, 25-21 (lo)
Havre - Kills: 47 (Lena Suek 19). Assists: 43 (Alexa Lipp 41). Aces: 1 (Keelie Solomon). Digs: 59 (Suek 14). Blocks: 3 (Sjanette D'Hooge 1, Suek 1).
Lewistown - Kills: 27 (Lindsi Bayless 10). Assists: 24 (Ashley Boettger 24). Aces: 5 (Katie D'Audremont 3). Digs: 56 (Merrick Carpenter 16). Blocks: 6 (Arielle Allen 4).
Havre def. Corvallis
22-25, 25-19, 25-15, 21-25, 15-7 (lo)
Havre - Kills: 60 (Lena Suek 21). Aces: 8 (Kelsey Evans 3). Assists: 53 (Alexa Lipp 51). Digs: 81 (Suek 21). Blocks: 7 (Signe Hillson 2.5).
Corvallis - Kills: 37 (Maria Peterson 21). Aces: 11 (Bonnie Burke 3, Maria Peterson 3). Assists: 29 (Adrienne Bull 26). Digs: 79 (Peterson 20). Blocks: 6 (Kasie Conder 3).