A 21-0 mark and a state championship from 2013 left Corvallis at the top of the Class A volleyball mountain, and the Blue Devils certainly like the view from the Bitterroot range.
The bad news is there’s no way to go up from there, and Frenchtown, Libby and Hamilton will be trying to drag them down.
“Those seasons don’t come around too often,” said sixth-year Corvallis coach Kasey Arceniega, who returns just one starter – but six letter-winners – from that 21-0 club. “We were undefeated, and I’m thankful for that and that good memory, and it’s kind of tough to top.“
The goal is to repeat, but it will be tough for the Blue Devils. In fact getting out of a tough divisional will be task enough.
Kelsey Irwin is the top returnee for Corvallis, a two-time all-conference outside hitter who will be an offensive cornerstone for a third straight year.
Joining the 5-foot-11 senior up front is 6-2 senior Jane Booth, a relative newcomer to volleyball who began last year on the junior varsity but became a force at the net by the end.
Corvallis graduated its two setters from last year – Alex Price and Laura Berner – leaving Holly Wilson to set up a 5-1 offense. Hannah Capko is a 5-10 hitter who’s ready to step to the varsity net as a junior.
“We’re looking to build something different because it’s clearly a different team,” Arceniega said. “This year we’re lacking in varsity experience, so we’re working on communication and playing together.“
Arceniega points at Hamilton as a top threat, led by outside hitters Shannon Casale, a junior, and Jaylee Albert, a senior. Both stand 5-9; standing taller is setter Makayla Horvath, a 5-10 senior.
Casale, Arceniega, “is a tenacious all-around player and specifically an outstanding defender.“
Stevensville is counting on a pair of senior starters, outside hitter Megan Finley and Carly Vercruyssen, to help the Yellowjackets improve on last year’s 5-11 mark.
Dillon figures to build on an 11-11 season that included a trip to state under second-year coach Angela Racicot, a Frenchtown product. There are three senior leaders: outside hitter Cierra Lamey, middle blocker Taylor Chase and setter Holly Anderson.
If Alex Rouse, who underwent to ACL surgeries last year, returns to form the Beavers will be tough.
Butte Central has every starter back from last year, though the Maroons went 0-18. Lacey McGree and Sierra Pica, both juniors, each stand 5-9.
Anaconda lost a lot of senior talent off a team that was second in the regular season. The top threats at the net are junior Kassandra Flores and senior Khali Knadler.
All of these teams could challenge Corvallis, or the Blue Devils could keep rolling.
“We have the same goals, we’re just going to go about it a little differently,” Arceniega said. “The skill set is there; they just don’t have the experience of playing with each other.”
If Frenchtown perhaps snuck up on opponents in 2012 with a second-place finish at state, the Broncs were a known commodity last year when then went 17-7 and advanced to state.
Three starters are back, including all-state middle hitter Morgan Ray and setter Haley Cyr. Third-year coach Gypsy Ray also hopes for big things from senior outside hitter Lacey Hochhalter and 6-1 senior right side hitter Faith Bauer.
Every player on the Frenchtown roster is a senior, which might remind some of Corvallis’ 2013 team.
“We all think about Corvallis last year,” allowed Ray. “Our goal, as it has been the last two seasons, is to bring home a state championship. That’s the ultimate goal, and then we have lot of goals between here and there.”
Ray expects the biggest in-conference challenge could be from Libby, which went 8-12 last year but returns five starters and seven seniors.
The list includes outside hitter Hailey Craig, who missed last season with a knee injury. Hannah England will set the Logger offense for a fourth season.
“I think Libby’s really going to bring it this year,” said Ray. “They’ve been quiet and steady and building from a young team into a much more seasoned team.”
Whitefish is looking for a bounce back year (four wins in 2013) with four returning starters, including middle hitters Myndi Holbrook and Rachael Seymour and outside hitter Maura Kalbfleisch. Fourth-year coach Sarah Scott is hoping for a stronger offensive attack with junior Allie Schulz setting the tempo.
Columbia Falls always seems to have height and talent, and the Wildkats had a 2-1 lead on Corvallis last week before falling in five sets. Ciera Finberg and Winter Kemppainen are forces in the middle alongside outside hitter Carla Nicosia.
Polson won nine matches last year and had an all-state performer in Jaiden Toth.
Many of these teams will get early-season tests at the Frenchtown Tip-Off Tournament Friday and Saturday. Ray will have an eye on Toth and the rest, knowing any team might pull off what the Broncs did in 2012 – win two league matches and then catch fire.
It’s a memory worth savoring, and Ray harkens back to how loose that group played as her Broncs head into the 2014 seasons.
“Most importantly we want to have fun,” she said. “We do our best when we have fun. We have volleyball skill, but we do our best as a team when we’re having fun.”