By Ryan Divish
Eight volleyball teams will converge on the Havre High gymnasium today with one common goal to capture the Class A state volleyball tournament.
The opening round of the tournament began this morning at 10 a.m. with the top-ranked Lewistown Eagles facing the Columbia Falls Wildkats.
All of the first round matches will be played today, along with a pair of quarter final matches between the first round winners to be played tonight.
According to most coaches, Lewistown is definitely considered to be the tournament favorite. Besides being ranked no. 1, the Eagles have lost only two matches this season bringing a sparkling 25-2 record to Havre.
Lewistown never lost a conference match during the season and faced several Class AA teams during the regular season. The Eagles are led by hitters Alicia Mannin and Dani Buehler. The duo ranked second and third in the Central A in kills per game and combined for over 300 kills on the season.
But Lewistown isn't defined by its hitters. They have a solid all-around team. Setter Lauren Tognetti has been solid all season and Shaylynn Conroy led the Central A with 3.36 digs per game.
"As a whole, we have to have good balance," said Eagles coach Tara Taylor. "We need to be consistent and efficient and take care of opporunities when we get them."
Columbia Falls comes into Havre with a 16-7 record and are led by senior middle hitter Andria Harris, who averaged 12 kills per match at the Western A Divisional. However, the key for the Wildkats will be the health of junior setter Amy Fredericks, who injured her ankle at the divisional tournament. If Fredericks can go, the Wildkats will return to a 5-2 offense featuring both Fredericks and Cealie Brumwell as the setter instead of a 6-1 offense they were forced to play a week ago.
"I know they return a few good players," Taylor said of the Wildkats. "I am sure they're like the other Western teams who are always really scrappy and play good defense."
Besides Lewistown, the Whitefish Bulldogs are also considered a tournament favorite. Ranked second in the state, Whitefish is 22-1 on the season and will face the Livingston Rangers at 2 p.m.
Whitefish is led statistically by Aericka Dunn at just about two kills per game. However, the Bulldogs are a very balanced team who can hurt opponents in an assortment of ways.
"There isn't any one player that determines whether we win or lose," said Whitefish head coach Jackie Fuller. "We don't rely on one player, we are very balanced and any of our players can contribute on any night."
Besides Dunn, hitters Allison Fey and Dana Lauridsen are steady contributors along with Ronan transfer Brandi Buckless.
Whitefish will face a Livingston squad that finished second at last year's state tournament. Despite losing several players from last year's squad, the Rangers cupboard is far from bare.
Senior hitter Lindsay Lyman is a solid offensive threat and led the Central A with 3.15 kills per game. Trish Nelson is a solid center while 6-2 middle hitter Shannon Bosley is an imposing figure in the middle.
Since they are playing a team they have never seen before, Fuller can't get to concerned about her opponent.
"We have to take of ourselves," Fuller said. "We need to do what we do best. The biggest thing is to have a lot of communication and play good defense."
In other first round action, Colstrip will face Dillon in a match of a pair of solid teams. Colstrip is led by Geneva Blunt with just over 10 kills and seven blocks per match at the Eastern A Divisional.
In any other conference Dillon could easily be in first place, they sport a 22-7 record with five of those losses coming at the hands of Lewistown. The Beavers have solid hitters in Robin Russell and Jenny Castro while Valory Monaco is an athletic setter and Kacee Tash is a good all-around player.
Billings Central is coming off a stellar divisional in which they knocked off previously undefeated Colstrip twice. The Rams will look to continue their solid play against the Libby Loggers. Central is led by hitter Keriann Lynch and setter Kathryn Longo. Libby is paced by outside hitters Nicole Rowan and Anika Spencer and setter Danni Armstrong.
The tournament will run through Saturday with the championship match starting at 2 p.m.