By Tiffany L. Rehbein
The confines of MSU-Northern gymnasium. The murmurs of the coaches could almost be heard on Friday at noon, drifting down the hallway into the sterile lobby of the athletic department.
The strategy being planned by each side. The X's and O's penned onto napkins, scratch pads, or legal yellow tablets.
Around 1 p.m., the players, the best senior volleyball players from Classes A, B, and C, begin to filter into the gym. They check-in, pick up their uniforms, and receive correct practice and game times.
But they don't have long Class A practices at 1:30 p.m., followed by Class B at 2:45, and Class C at 4 p.m., before commencing at the banquet to be held at Donaldson Hall on the campus of MSU-Northern at 6:30 p.m.
It will be only one of two formal practices before game time on Saturday. The coaches must meet the players, the players must meet the players, and the best combination of athletes must reveal itself in the shortest amount of time; for that could be the victor.
Class A Laura Sundheim will get the head coaching call this year. Although unable to attend practice and the banquet Friday night, Sundheim will rely on veteran All-Star volleyball coach Bill Huebsch and rookie Jackie Fuller until she can regain the reins on the Class A early Saturday.
Sundheim coached the Hardin Bulldogs to the State Class A championship just three weeks ago at Havre.
Hardin lost the semifinal match to the Havre Blue Ponies and came through the loser's bracket on Saturday en route to the finish, knocking off Whitefish and Havre twice in the championship round.
"It's an honor to work with these kids," Sundheim said. "I think our job as coaches is just to get them familiar with each other and try to bring out the best of them. As coaches, we should try not to get in the way and let them shine."
Sundheim, who has coached the Bulldogs into every state tournament since volleyball began as an MHSA sanctioned sport in the mid '80s, will begin her fourth year as the head coach of the All-Star tournament. She has also been an assistant for three years.
Huebsch, the head coach of runner-up Havre, has been involved in coaching at the tournament for six years, including being the head coach during the past two years.
"It is an honor to be able to coach," Huebsch said. "I think the kids are primarily here to have fun and we are able to give them some recognition for their achievements."
The only young gun on the coaching squad this season is Fuller, the head coach for the third-place finishing Whitefish Bulldogs. She is in her first year coaching at the tournament.
"I am really excited," Fuller said. "It has caused me to have sleepless nights again. This is always something I've hoped that I would be invited to. I am just excited to get with other coaches and learn something."
Class B Laurie Kelly will lead the middle class through the tournament. Kelly coached the Roundup Panthers to an upset at the State Class B championships, held two weeks ago at Cut Bank.
"This is a great showcase for seniors to play again and to have fun," Kelly said.
Her Panthers waltzed through the Class B tournament unbeaten and knocked off defending state champion Manhattan twice to claim the crown.
"We, as coaches, are merely there to be facilitators, they are doing the playing," Kelly said. "Our job is to pull them together."
Assisting will be Thresa Adams, the head coach for the third-place finishing Whitehall Trojans.
Although never claiming a state crown, Whitehall finished third in 1999 and second in 1998. The other two teams in the mix during those years? Roundup and Manhattan.
Class C Monica Switzer claimed her first state championship two weeks ago at Lewistown.
Switzer helped lead the Richey Royals to a brilliant 40-0 record the best of any state champion this season and to the Royals' first state volleyball championship. Richey was also the first team in Class C history to claim a state title in girls' basketball during the same school year.
The only Class AA schools to accomplish such a feat were Missoula Sentinel (1985-86) and Missoula Big Sky (1988-89.) The only Class B school to accomplish it was Troy, which did it in 1992-93 and again in 1993-94.
Switzer is in her fifth year at the All-Star tourney.
"This gives the chance for these seniors to compete at their own level of play," Switzer said. "The kids are so competitive, they want to win. Our job is to get these kids on a role."
Bob McLean, of second-place finishing Twin Bridges, will assist Switzer. The two will begin their second-straight season at each others side. McLean was the head coach last season.
"Last year, I dreaded going up and doing it," McLean said. "But it was really an experience in itself just being able to work with the girls. After I got involved in it, I really did enjoy it."
McLean led the Falcons through the loser-out bracket at the State Class C tournament and knocked off Harlowton in a redemptive third-place match en route to their finish.
"I relied an awful lot on Monica (last year)," McLean said. "She had a lot of experience and that is a good thing at a tournament like this. I know her, as far as how intense she is, and it was really an advantage to have her there."
The players were nominated by their coach and were filtered by the All-Star coaches. Two factors playing into the selection were ability and attitude. However, some players originally chosen could not attend due to conflicting schedules.
"I am excited to play," Havre Blue Pony Erin Patera said. "It will be fun. I know that playing in the basketball tournament (Treasure State Classic) it was fun getting to know the other girls in other towns. We were rivals before and it is nice to get to know them off the court."
Patera was named co-MVP at the State Class A tournament. She amassed 52 digs and 48 kills in the combined championship matches at state.
"I am honored to have the opportunity to play with a bunch of great players," Havre Blue Pony Tiffany Shrauger said. Shrauger led the Ponies defensively in the championship matches as she tallied 55 total digs.
Shrauger was named to the state all-tournament team as defensive specialist on the first team.
"I am really excited and think it's an honor," Hardin Bulldog Kelsey Bierman said. Bierman was also awarded co-MVP at the State Class A tournament.
"I think it is really good just getting to know different players and to share athletic talents and to be able to share mine, too," she said.
Bierman had 54 digs and 28 kills during the two championship matches at state.
Six of the 13 Class A athletes are from the Central Division, including the Fergus County Golden Eagles' Jamie Slagel and Janalee Stokken. Both were integral in leading Lewistown to the Central A divisional crown.
Slagel was named MVP at that tournament.
Livingston's Angela Bausch and Rae Stevenson are also on the team. Bausch tallied 10 kills, 16 digs, six aces, and two blocks in the Rangers' upset win over Whitefish at the state tournament.
It was Livingston's first showing at state in 10 years. They won the state title in their last showing (1990).
Bigfork's Brook Hovland and Andi Anderson and Libby's Joanna Wolcott will represent the Western A at the tournament.
Bigfork, who joined the Class A just three years ago, made its first state appearance in the A ranks just this season.
Hovland led the Vals in passing percentage and digs to end the season. She was also named honorable mention on the all-tournament team at state.
Kitty Earley from Billings Central, Molly Hatten from Colstrip, and Sarah Farber from Glendive round out the A roster.
"I am just really excited to play with some of these girls," Earley said. She will play basketball for Carroll College next winter. "I think it will be fun working with some of these coaches, too."
While State Class B champion Roundup does not have a senior representative, Breeanna Robinson of runner-up Manhattan and Courtney Smith and Cassie Weightman of Whitehall will be playing.
Robinson had 19 kills and nine digs in the championship match at state.
Choteau's Ashley Richins will also be at the tournament. Richins had 39 assists, nine digs, six kills, and three aces to lead the Bulldogs to their fourth-place state finish.
Danae Cox, a standout basketball player from Baker, and Tali Alves from Cascade will both play, while the Hi-Line floods the team.
Malta boasts two players in LeeAnn Pekovitch and Ashley Fried.
Wolf Point's Emmy Olson and Lisa Kurokawa are enlisted. Both have signed to play volleyball in college Olson at MSU-Northern and Kurokawa at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo.
Chinook's Katie Hoffman also got the call.
"It was a real honor to be chosen," Hoffman said. "I think it is a really great opportunity to play volleyball one more time. It is a game that I love and I love being able to play it longer."
With Richey's main artery of power in its junior class, and its lone senior committed to other projects, Switzer will not bring any athletes from the small town in Dawson County to the Class C roster.
However, Twin Bridges will be represented by three fine players in Erin Carlson, Meghan Zenker, and Romi Anderson.
Joining them from the South will be Sandy Ferris from Park City and Amy Manger from White Sulpher Springs.
Nicky Woolard is the lone Western C gal to get the call to play. She played for Philipsburg, a team who upset the Western Divisional tournament en route to state.
Winifred's Karla Wickens, Stanford's Nikki Sheppard, Dutton's Emily Forsman, and Chester's Megan Mattson are each from the Northern Division.
"I am actually excited about the fact that I got chosen to play," Mattson said. "I am excited to play with some of the awesome hitters."
Class B is the back-to-back defending champion at the tournament. Last season, Class B went undefeated, knocking off both Classes A and C at Lewistown.
"I am glad I get that opportunity again," Kelly said. "I look at those seniors and I have to try to build, in two practices, a great team. The challenge is in taking 12 kids and putting them together and saying, Now we are going to compete after two hours of practice.'"
But after a second-place finish last year at the All-Star tournament, the Class C should not be taken lightly.
"Let's not forget about us little ones," Switzer said. "You have to sell the Class C to everyone. I think in the Class C the work ethic is great. The Class A, Class B, they are so much bigger that they forget about the little Class C. Sometimes that can be great motivation."
The Class C knocked off Class A last year.
"Class A is due," Huebsch said. "B has been awfully good the last couple of years, but I think if you can can get a good representation from each class, there will be a lot of good volleyball played."
Last year, the Class A also boasted the smallest team.
"The biggest challenge will be the hitters getting used to the setters, and the setters getting used to knowing what the hitters want," Sundheim said. "I think the first team to figure that out should do well."