Polson spikers NWA champs
By DIXIE KNUTSON The Daily Inter Lake Daily Inter Lake
Pirate coach Jan Toth admits she wasn’t sure what to expect when volleyball practice started last August.
“I lost a tremendous athletic group from last year,” she said.
After the first couple practices, “I looked at what we had and I knew we could be outstanding. But I also knew it was going to be a lot of hard work,” Toth said.
“I had to push and push and push. They accepted that. They knew I was just trying to get the best out of them,” she said.
She got it.
The Pirates overcame a bit of a slow start to defeat Northwestern A divisional host Whitefish 25-18, 23-25, 25-17, 25-23 in the championship match on Saturday.
It is the second straight divisional title for Polson.
Both teams advance to this week’s All-Class State Volleyball Tournament in Bozeman.
Ashley Johnson had 13 kills and Jessica Hoel 12. Shalaina Duford added 41 set assists and four aces and Kenzie Clay had four blocks for the Pirates.
For Whitefish, Abby Strellnauer had 17 kills and Emily Sullivan had 15 kills and a block. Taylor Havens had 39 assists and Ryan Chauner had eight digs.
“I am exhausted, but elated. I blame it all on the kids. The kids have bought into the program and the work ethic,” Toth smiled.
The Pirate defense came through in a big way – 99 digs and nine blocks.
“We got some stuff up that they hit hard,” the coach said.
With people like Mackenzie Banner (31 digs) and Shalaina Duford (22 digs) out there, “a coach can relax,” she said.
“Riley Kenney, she’s another one. You can relax. You know it’s going to be taken care of,” she said.
“I’m also proud of my sophomore, Jessica Hoel. She was fabulous. She really changed the fabric of the match,” the coach said.
But things looked a little out of sync in the early going.
Whitefish, having just swept Columbia Falls, came in to the championship with a ton of momentum.
“We came out strong and then had a little dip,” said Bulldog coach Sarah Scott.
“For us, it’s just maintaining that strength throughout the match,” she said.
For the Pirates, it was about getting going after watching all day.
“We always do that,” Toth said of the slow start.
“Then they get that competitive fire and you can see it in their eyes that nobody is going to take it from us.”
So, they trailed, then bounced back to win the first set.
Then they dropped the second set.
Toth never batted an eyelash.
“That’s normal for us. Then we have to push through sets three and four. That’s how we’ve been all season,” she said.
They did and by the time the fourth set rolled around both teams were just hammering the ball at one another.
That was something Scott was happy to see.
“I think our level of play this weekend was higher than it has been all season. This weekend we learned how to fight and how to dig deep in tough situations against tough teams,” she said.
“We learned how to want to win. In the past we have settled for playing just enough to win. This weekend we learned we have the ability and the drive to win,” Scott added.
The Bulldogs also discovered two go-to hitters.
Freshman Sullivan “has been incredible. She grew up this weekend and is finally starting to realize the potential she has,” the coach said.
“(Strellnauer) became that clutch go-to player. She was unstoppable. With both those girls we always have somebody we can definitely go to in a pinch,” she said.
“I was really impressed by some of our girls throughout the weekend,” the coach added.
“Baylee Tveidt played excellent middle back and Shelia Murphy stepped in to play excellent left back,” she said.
The Pirates will open the tournament at 10 a.m. Thursday against the No. 2 team from Central A. The Bulldogs will play at 4 p.m. against the Central A champion.
Northwestern A Divisional
Polson def. Whitefish 25-18, 23-25, 25-17, 25-23
Kills – Whitefish 44 (Abby Strellanuer 17, Emily Sullivan 15), Polson 57 (Ashley Johnson 13, Jessica Hoel 12); Assists – Whitefish 42 (Taylor Havens 39), Polson 45 (Shalaina Duford 41); Blocks – Whitefish 3 (Havens 1, Baylee Tveidt 1, Sullivan 1), Polson 9 (Kenzie Clay 4); Digs – Whitefish 47 (Ryan Chauner 8, Kelsey McFadden 7), Polson 99 (Mackenzie Banner 31, Duford 22); Aces – Whitefish 7 (Tveidt 4, Shelia Murphy 2), Polson 9 (Duford 4, Johnson 2, Heidi Rausch 2).