By Tiffany L. Rehbein
The defending back-to-back State Class A champion Havre Blue Pony volleyball team ushered in the new season with, you guessed it, a No. 1 finish at the Class A Extravaganza at Dillon Saturday.
"We started to improve as the weekend went on," head coach Bill Huebsch said. "We were starting to gel as a team."
The Ponies (1-1 conference, 4-1 overall) opened the season with two conference matches, first defeating the Dillon Beavers 15-8, 11-15, 15-11, 15-11 at the Dillon High School gymnasium.
"It was the first match of the year and we did make some mistakes," Huebsch said. "We compensated by playing the good defense and we got the win by playing hard."
Senior Erin Patera served seven of the team's nine aces in the match. She also had a team-high 11 kills and 11 digs in the contest.
Senior Lisa Wagner tallied 18 of the team's 29 assists, while 5-foot-10 sophomore Jeri Matter had five blocks in the effort.
After the win, the Blue Ponies boarded the bus, drove four blocks to Western Montana College, and faced the Belgrade Panthers, who handed the Ponies their first conference loss in two years behind a 15-6, 15-6, 15-7 win.
"We couldn't do anything right and they did everything right," Huebsch said. "We just self destructed in the matter of a bus ride. We were all really disappointed. What matters is not that we lost the match, but how we lost is what bothers me."
Seniors Teri Sherrill, Kristen Kuka and Patera each tallied an ace -- the only three in the match -- in the loss.
Wagner and Kuka each notched six assists, while 5-foot-10 sophomore Jayla McPherson had a team-high six kills. Sophomore Amy Ranes had three blocks on the net to lead Havre, while Patera and senior Tiffany Shrauger tallied 8 digs apiece in the effort.
"We met after the match and I told the girls that I don't have a problem losing, if you're putting forth your best effort. It's one thing to get beat when you've played your best. We didn't do that. We entered Saturday with a new perspective on what we needed to do to play well."
And play well they did, in a league that posed teams throughout the division who could win at any given time.
In pool play at the tournament Saturday, the teams played one game to 15 points, or 25 minutes, whichever came first.
The Ponies strutted through, defeating the Anaconda Copperheads 15-7, a scrappy Butte Central Maroons team 15-12, and Belgrade, the nemesis, 14-10, after 25 minutes.
Patera and Shrauger combined from behind the line and aced 6-of-8 serves among the three games.
Wagner and Kuka shared setting responsibilities, combining for 14-of-17 assists in pool play.
Jayla McPherson had three kills against Anaconda, junior Nikki Grant notched five against Butte Central, and Patera and Matter each tallied two against Belgrade to lead the Ponies.
The two "Sh's" on the team, Shrauger and Sherrill, quieted the opponent's offense when they combined for 13-of-19 digs to lead Havre.
The Ponies entered the tournament 3-0 and the No. 1 seed from Pool A en route to the championship.
In tournament play, the Ponies first defeated the Browning Indians, the No. 4 seed from Pool B, 15-2, 15-3. Patera and Grant combined for half of the Ponies' 16 kills in the effort.
The Fergus County Golden Eagles, a team the Ponies met nine times last season, were knocked off 15-5, 12-15, 15-11 in the semifinal.
Ranes and Patera combined for nine of the Ponies' 19 kills in the match. Shrauger, Sherrill and Patera had a combined 12-of-15 digs in the match.
The Ponies defeated the Park County Rangers 15-5, 11-15, 15-12 in the championship game.
Patera gathered six kills, while Matter tallied five in the win.
Defensively, Shrauger collected seven digs, while Patera had six.
"Basically, this was a pre-divisional tournament," Huebsch said. "You get to see what they have and they see what we have. I think it's important for us to go down there and make a statement. We needed to make a statement that Havre is the team to beat."
The Ponies return to action at the Electric City Tournament on Jan. 7-8 at Great Falls.