The District 6C East volleyball tournament was a gut-wrenching two days for both the Chinook Sugarbeeters and the North Star Knights. But surviving the tournament was only the beginning for both Hi-Line teams.
Thursday, the 6C champion Beeters, and the runner-up Knights begin play at the Northern C Divisional in Conrad, where two spots in the Class C state tournament will be on the line. The tournament runs Thursday-Saturday.
And while both the Beeters (16-1) and Knights (14-4) played in, and came out of one of the best districts in Class C volleyball, the Northern C is a whole other animal. The division is year-in-and-year-out the most difficult in the state, and the 2013 divisional will be no exception.
"When you get to this point in the season, there are no easy matches," Chinook head coach Kaylee Larson said. "This divisional tournament is as tough as it gets as far as competition goes."
Of course, the Beeters, who face District 7C runner-up Fort Benton in Thursday's first round, and the Knights, who take on 6C West runner-up Sunburst, are part of that tough competition Larson spoke of. And with 7C champion Belt, as well as 6C West champion Simms in the field too, the next three days in Conrad will be as exciting and as difficult as it gets in Class C volleyball.
"You look at all these teams, Fort Benton, Belt, Simms, Cascade, North Star," Larson said. "Everybody is really good. You have to play your very best to even have a chance in this tournament. And that's our goal. To keep playing our best."
With so many great teams in the field this week, picking a favorite isn't easy. Belt is certainly at the top of the list, but the Beeters have seen plenty of the completion, including the Longhorns, their first-round opponent. And the way Chinook is playing right now, the Beeters have to be one of the favorites too. Makhayla Farmer leads the way, but Chinook is balanced. Emily Dennis is a stalwart defensively, while players like Brooke Nicholson, Hannah Weber and Katelyn Neibauer to name a few, give Chinook a lot of size and athleticism.
Like Chinook, the Knights know their competition well too. North Star faced Sunburst twice this season, and the Knights also have a wealth of divisional experience to draw on. North Star came within a win of reaching the state tournament a year ago, and players like Bettie Carlon, Melissa Pester and Mackenzie Hansen, as well as Tylynn Rettig and Delainey Spicher were all part of that run a year ago. And North Star, who also gets outstanding blocking from Kiera Miller and excellent setting from sophomore Graysen Spicher, should be right back in the hunt for a state tournament berth again this weekend.
North Star senior Bettie Carlon makes a pass during last week's 6C East volleyball tournament in Gildford. The Knights, along with Chinook play at the Northern C this week in Conrad.
But getting to the state tournament will be anything but easy. It's a long tough road, and the Northern C is as tough and talented as any of the four Class C divisional tournaments being held this weekend.
"We have to focus on our side of the net," Larson said. "If we get our side of the net handled, we should be solid. Our goal now is to get one of those top two spots and go to state. That's what this team is focusing on."
The Northern C gets underway Thursday morning with 7C champ Belt taking on the third seed from the 6C West, the Power Pirates. North Star and Sunburst will follow that match and Chinook and Fort Benton play the next match. The final first-round match will pit either 6C West champion Simms, or runner-up Augusta against 7C No. 3 Great Falls Central.
The 2013 Northern C tournament will run through Saturday's championship match, which is scheduled for 4 p.m. All of the action will take place in Conrad, and the top two teams will advance to the Class C state tournament Nov. 14-16 in Bozeman.