TRACK AND FIELD
TRACK AND FIELD
NWMT 'A' LINKS
STATE PREVIEW: LADY PIRATES
November 8, 2011Northwest Montana A Conference
2011 State A Volleyball Preview:
Three-Peat NWA Conference Champion
Two-Time Northwestern A Divisional Champion
Polson Lady Pirates
by John Heglie
RECAP SUMMARY OF 2011 VOLLEYBALL SEASON
The 2011 rendition of the Polson Lady Pirates embark upon their quest to attain the booty of coveted state tournament hardware with a 14-2 overall mark. These lady swashbucklers were highly competitive in the pair of tournaments they participated in during the course of the season. At the Northwestern A vs. Southwestern A Tip-Off Tournament held in Anaconda, Polson emerged from a three-way tie among NWA teams with the number-one seeding, but fell just short of defending their crown from the previous year with a final set loss to Tip-Off champion Hamilton. At the Missoula County Volleyball Invitational, the Lady Pirates would be the only Class A team to qualify for the championship bracket after a dozen games of pool play and a pair of power-game encounters in which they triumphed over AA CMR of Great Falls and AA Missoula Hellgate, falling mere points shy in a pair of games against other AA opponents.
Shifting focus over to the regular schedule, the Lady Pirates went 7-1 in conference, coming out on the short end of a five set early season encounter with the Frenchtown Lady Broncs which they would rectifiy the final week of the regular season to capture their third straight conference crown. In non-conference action, they would drop an early season encounter against a quintet of just-a-scratch-under-6-foot-tall Stevensville Lady Yellowjackets, but then rattled off four straight including a payback victory over Stevi toward the end of the regular schedule.
At the Northwestern A Divisional Tournament, the Lady Pirates dispatched the Columbia Falls Wildkats in the second round (25-22, 25-16, 20-25, 25-15), then triumphed over the Whitefish Lady Bulldogs in the undefeated semifinal after dropping the initial set (15-25, 25-19, 25-20, 25-22). For the Northwestern A Divisional title tilt, the Polson squad would split the first two sets (25-18, 23-25), but then rattled off the final pair (25-17, 25-23) to squeeze by a determined Whitefish Lady Bulldog squad to capture their second divisional title in the history of the program.
2011 LADY PIRATE VOLLEYBALL ROSTER
The friendly demeanor of senior 5-10 middle hitter Riley “The Cannon” Kenney could lull an unsuspecting player on the other side of the net into complacency if the volleyball all-conference 2nd-team, basketball all-state, twice all-conference (1st-team 10/11, 2nd-team 09/10) and softball twice all-conference 1st-team credentials didn’t provide sufficient clues that they are dealing with a competitor who approaches athletic endeavors seriously. This is the second season that Kenney has been ranked among the NWA conference top ten in multiple categories. Yank the chain on this “Cannon” and the ensuing concussions from when she goes off are liable to reverberate throughout an entire match. Kenney’s presence in the lineup bolsters the Lady Pirate attacking capability as well as shores up a defensive front that becomes much more difficult to penetrate. This senior has exceptional court awareness when it comes to placing the ball between gaps in a defense or countering an attack with her reaction timing.
Volleyball all-conference honorable-mention and softball two-time all-conference 1st-team senior 5-8 outside/middle hitter Ashley “Bust a Move” Johnson seems to have found her groove when you are represented among a trio of statistical categories of the TOP TEN of your conference the majority of the season. This Ash is also liable to go volcanic at any time, such as when she erupted for 18 service aces the last three games of the 2010 regular season. Johnson led the conference in total number of overall kills the majority of this season and was barely edged from the top perch the final week of the regular schedule. In addition to bearing two state softball titles to her name, Johnson diversified her portfolio this Fall when she was recently selected Homecoming Queen. Those who have been accorded a taste for things royal tend to be dissatisfied with the mediocre, so this queen of a player would relish nothing better than to extend her reign by helping her teammates bring home the crown jewel of a volleyball state championship.
Tennis doubles all-conference senior 5-8 middle hitter Kenzie “Can’t Touch This” Clay emerged as a presence at the net last season with a top ten performance in the NWA conference for blocked shots. While last year she put up double-digit numbers on the attack for kills on a couple of occasions, this season she expanded her TOP TEN representation by slamming her way into the upper eschalon of this stat category. When Clay has her serve going for her, the slice she puts on the ball without a tennis racket can be difficult to handle, such as when she served up three aces in a row against visiting Stevensville in the course of avenging an earlier loss to that Southwestern A team. When Clay has any combination of these three volleyball skills working for her, the underlying rationale behind the nickname conferred upon her becomes apparent to those on the other side of the net who find they can’t touch this or that.
Opponents are liable to get a double dose of defensive excellence when they encounter senior 5-3 defensive specialist Macall “Mighty Mite” Banner and the play of junior 5-4 libero Mackenzie “Bodacious” Banner. Both Banners are fearless about hitting the deck in pursuit of a dig and ferocious when it comes to going on the attack. Their involvement in horse cutting competitions, where they have both been ranked among the top five in the state within the Youth age group bracket, has instilled in them a good sense of balance and a watchful gaze that helps them track where a ball is going to go. They have become adept readers of body English when it comes to anticipating how those on the other side of the net might reach and both possess the kind of quickness that allows them to beat the ball to a spot on the floor so that opponents have a hard time finding a gap. As a consequence, both Banners have been a regular statistical presence among the TOP TEN of the NWA conference for defensive digs. It has not been uncommon at junctures throughout the season when either one or the other has made some spectacular defensive plays that were instrumental in shifting the momentum of a game because of their extra effort.
Softball two-time all-tournament (2010 MVP), all-state, two-time all-conference 1st-team junior 5-5 setter Shay “The Tiger” Duford has significant range that allows her to lend her capable paws to intervene in varying volleyball situations that arise on the floor as she claws up digs, serves up aces or dishes out assists. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that she emerged well represented among the TOP TEN of the NWA conference in a trio of statistical categories. This swashbuckler of a lass is a quintessential gamer aptly compared to a “Tiger” because she is capable of making substantial noise on the court at any time when an opportunity arises for her to flex any of her versatile stripes. Opponents ought to be forewarned that it tends to be unwise to rile a tigress when she is on the prowl. A pitcher on the two-time defending state champion softball team, Duford can deliver an assist with equal efficiency and control as one of the pitches she hurls with regularity from the mound within the strike zone during softball season. Players defending their half of the court on the other side of the net may find themselves bleating sheepishly when they are caught unaware by this ferocious feline’s volleyball version of a fastball, curve ball or changeup.
Two-time softball state champion junior 5-8 outside/middle hitter Heidi “Rumblin” Rausch has emerged as a force to be reckoned with at the net as well as from the service line for the Lady Pirates this season as she has begun to master that critical blend between technique and timing. She is also more than capable of covering the back row well defensively. A fierce competitor coupled with strong communication skills, the intensity of her level of play is capable of igniting a rumble that can shift the momentum of a game a critical junctures. Rausch has plenty of power at her disposal evident from her TOP TEN presence among the NWA conference for spikes. The quality level of her play is peaking at the right time and was an important catalyst during the undefeated divisional semifinal that helped vault her team into the NWA divisional championship.
Junior 5-3 outside hitter/defensive specialist Katie “The Stinger” Sprague is a versatile player who can be deployed almost anywhere. Her cat-like reflexes allow her to react to the ball quickly and intercept incoming hits. Her nickname was acquired in part from some of the velocity she can inflict upon a ball that those on the other end feel when they attempt to field some of her hits. She is also one who has been working at perfecting her own unique version of “the wicked serve.”
Junior 5-4 defensive specialist Chelsea “Chase It Down” Chowning has seen varsity court time mainly in a substitutionary role, but regularly played at the libero position during junior varsity matches. As her nickname belies, she has great reaction time and is quick to cover gaps defensively. Chowning displays much of the kind of mental toughness that is an essential ingredient to becoming a superb volleyball player.
Junior 5-8 outside hitter Tina “The Terminator” Marquardt has the kind of power that packs a wallop when she makes solid contact with the ball, the type that is capable of rocking a player back on their heels as it eats them up. This observation would come as no surprise to softball fans who have observed her generate multiple extra base hits when she made solid contact upon another type of ball with her bat the past couple of Spring seasons. The nickname derived from the cyborg sci-fi movies no doubt seemed apropos when some of her hits sent defensive diggers diving to no avail as if the Arnold Schwarzeneggar character from the T 1-3 movies had swept them aside as he went about his destructive business. Her improvements in timing and technique vaulted Marquardt into the TOP TEN of the NWA conference for spiking efficiency, an area where her contributions have been increasing as the season has progressed.
Sophomore 5-8 outside hitter Jessica “Jumpin” Hoel has blue sky vertical capability for clearing some substantial air under her feet. The coil of her spring at times can appear that it runs the risk of her jumping out of her pair of shoes if the laces weren’t bound tight. Such capability opens up opportunities to either spike the ball for a kill or put up a block, which payed off double-digit dividends during the recently completed divisional championship. The plug of ice that is often featured at the bottom of her water jug on the sidelines may partially help explain why she doesn’t seem to get too rattled under pressure situations as if she has ice flowing through her veins.
Junior 5-10 middle hitter “Tenacious” Tanisha Matt has chiefly contributed in a substitionary role to spell starters. When she has seen increased court time, she has made her presence felt to such an extent that she shared team high honors for service aces during one non-conference game midseason. Matt is also capable of putting up a formidable block at the net for snuffing would-be rallies.
It is uncertain how junior 5-4 outside hitter Courtney “The Animal” McCreary came to acquire her nickname. Perhaps it originates from the way she approaches the game, as if she embodies some kind of beast gone wild when making a play on the ball. But what kind of critter upon which to draw a comparison turned out to be difficult to determine. A kangaroo comes to mind when she springs into her leap when making a jump serve. When intercepting a dig opportunity, the fluidity of her motion resembles the pounce of a lion. Her ability to jump at the net despite being somewhat vertically challenged would make any jackrabbit or bounding deer envious. Whatever might be the underlying rationale behind her nickname, fans who observe this lass in action are bound to be entertained when watching much of what McCreary is capable of doing when opportunity arises.
Softball 14U ASA state champion freshman 5-8 backup setter Jaiden “Just Do It” Toth has seen much of her action this season in a substitutionary role, but she is more than capable of taking on broader responsibility should a situation arise requiring her ample skill sets. The number of hours that this teenage Toth has logged attending tournaments and soaked up listening in on discussions between coaches discussing strategies has accelerated her development far beyond what one might come to anticipate from an ordinary newby freshman. As her nickname belies, plug her into a situation and she will tackle any challenge by just doing it.
2011 POSTSEASON PROGNOSIS AND ANALYSIS
The galleon of the Polson Lady Pirates sets sail upon its fourth straight voyage to the all-class state volleyball tournament with ample provisions, steered at the helm by 5th year head coach Jan Toth (17th overall), assisted by Adrienna DeCock, froshmore coach Bonnie Klein, volunteer coach Terry Shockey and team manager Tyler Krell. Toth and crew will attempt to navigate their lady swashbucklers through the at-times turbulent and unpredictable waters of state tournament matchups in a quest for coveted treasures that have thus far proved elusive, the booty of state tournament hardware. The deepest foray of recent vintage has been a 4th place finish in 2009 when Polson went 2-2. This year’s team would seem to have sufficient capability of making a run equally deep if not deeper into the bracket. There are several considerations that would seem to lend support to such an assessment.
Coaching Experience - Head coach Jan Toth has made eleven trips to the all-class state volleyball tournament during her coaching career: once with Big Sandy, thrice with Livingston (Park) as well as Cut Bank, and now four times with Polson. Factor in the state championship Whitefish won when she was a senior player on the team, and that equates to a dozen years of state tournament experience. Assistant coach Adrienna DeCock hails from Class B volleyball powerhouse Huntley Project, which made the trip to the all-class state tournament each of the past eight years and won the title six of those. DeCock was an assistant coach when Huntley Project won the Class B championship last season and she was a player on two other championship teams her junior and senior years of high school, providing her with three years of championship tournament experience. Together, Toth and DeCock provide the Lady Pirates with fifteen years of cumulative championship-level coaching experience, an advantage that other teams at the tournament are going to be hard pressed to match in terms of insight and wisdom.
Player Tournament Experience - The 2011 rendition of the Polson Lady Pirates have only a handful of players who have not seen court time at the Class A State Tournament. Well over half of the team has made the trip to the big show more than once. That exposure equates to a lot of seasoning as they seek to showcase their talents against the best that other parts of the state of Montana have to offer. There is little reason that Polson should succumb to tournament jitters or get blinded by the “deer in the headlights” syndrome that can affect teams less familiar with the state tournament atmosphere, increased fan attendance, media attention and associated distractions. The majority of the Purple & Gold team have been there before. They ought to know better and consequently have brought along their figurative sunglasses to wear in case the lights should get a little too bright.
TEAM Strength - Last season the 2010 rendition of the Lady Pirates had a pair of strong multiple triple-digit hitters who have gone on to extend their volleyball careers at the collegiate level. Those two alone accounted for over 500 seasonal kills of the overall team total. Ordinarily, it would be an unrealistic expectation to entertain the thought that any team the subsequent season could come close to matching such numbers. Yet the 2011 rendition of the Lady Pirates has not only matched those numbers, they exceeded them ever so slightly. Such a feat is an impressive offensive accomplishment, especially considering that the Lady Pirates feature no distinct height advantages over their opponents or overt go-to superstars on the team. The almost unthinkable has been accomplished by spreading the wealth around as a team, placing five players among the TOP TEN of the conference for kills with a support cast who have bolstered overall numbers further. For opposing defenses, this makes the Lady Pirates more dangerous to defend against because other teams cannot simply key on one or two players at they attempt to shut Polson down. Playing Polson is liable to bear similarities with attempting to deflate an inflatable mattress - push one side down and the other side keeps popping up in your face.
Another area of TEAM strength is at the defensive end. The past couple of season the Lady Pirates have had some very good defensive players. But this season they consistently had five members featured among the TOP TEN of the NWA conference for digs week after week, a quintet of defensive diggin dynamos who each crested the century mark, a pair of whom have tallied a multiple of that figure on the season. Factor in tournament performances and Lady Pirate representation for multiple triple-digit digging proficiency doubles. This year’s team is the best overall defensive team that Toth has coached at Polson and the first that has crested the millennial mark for digs at the end of the regular schedule alone. Some of that credit is shared by the quality and devotion of the players themselves. But part of that credit can also be traced to the input of assistant coach Adrienna DeCock, a stickler for boosting proficiency on defense by consistently stressed mastering fundamentals at this vital aspect of the game, an emphasis that has demonstrated visible improvement over years past to the tune of hundreds of digs. The Lady Pirates that returned from last year’s team also learned from the experience of being taken to school by first-round State A opponent Laurel, who turned in 171 digs against Polson despite the Lady Pirates having two of the best hitters in the state in their lineup pounding away at them. They learned that when tough hits can be dug out, they can then be sent back the other way. Accomplish that often enough and the defensive play of a team can change the overall compexion of any game.
Every player on the team has been featured either in the stat highlights of a game or a weekly writeup article at least one time or another during the course of this season. That kind of recognition only comes from broad overall depth demonstrated across the board that permeates throughout the team as a whole. Consequently, there isn’t that significant a drop-off when one players comes out and another player is sent in to take their place.
Don’t Sweat the Details? It’s All Details from Here On Out! - One can banter all day about impressive statistics and strengths in one area that outweight the weakness of another. What one team may have accomplished before doesn’t guarantee any outcomes at this juncture of the postseason. For each team entered at the State A Tournament, the season starts afresh. Big numbers only carry significance in that they suggest sound fundamental execution of a set of skills time after time, over and over again. The teams that master maintaining their focus upon making “this play, next play” have the greater chance of surviving and advancing to a subsequent round. At this stage of the postseason against the quality of teams entered in any state tournament, the margins of victory tend to be narrower, which requires greater diligence by individual players working together as a team to make the most of the opportunities that come within one’s sphere of influence to shape their outcome.
When it comes to evaluating the capabilities of Polson, coach Toth points out that the Lady Pirates have “incredible talent all the way around.” But because they feature no overtly dominant standout, “each player has a unique role that requires they contribute top notch play. … each girl knows exactly how to counteract each hit.” Miss an assignment and it forces another to compensate. Miss enough assignments and such breakdowns run the risk of piling up cumulatively, which can result in a detrimental domino effect. Hence it is recognized that the team must play their “absolute best” as a team if they wish to prevail at this juncture of the season. Consequently, the fortunes of Polson will likely rise or fall based upon how well they can play together as a team rather than rely on outstanding achievements by one player or another. But having said that, when the Lady Pirates get their team chemistry mixture just right during any given game, when they begin to function in synch with one another and that competitive fire ignites in their eyes, it would take a herculean effort to deter them from advancing.
Even though Halloween is now past, the Lady Pirates will still need to continually exorcize those ghosts that tend to lurk in the shadows ready to haunt a game at any opportunity, those abysmal trends and bad habits that one falls into which beat yourself worse than the best that another team can throw at you from the other side of the net, namely service errors and overkill spike attempts. Sometimes the smart and prudent thing to do is take the “less is more” approach - take just a little velocity off of a serve or tweak one’s slam enough to force the other side to field the ball inbounds. It makes little sense to feed ammunition to the other side when they have your team trained in their sights ready to unload both barrels at the slightest provocation.
What can Purple & Gold volleyball fans expect from their top-seeded representative for the Northwestern A conference making their fourth trip to the all-class state volleyball tournament? A team that has the capability of accomplishing great things when they play together in synch as a team. Whatever might ultimately transpire, whether they prevail or whether they come up short, one can be assured that the 2011 rendition of the Lady Pirates will be intent upon playing quality volleyball in such a way that they maximize their chances of being scheduled to be on the court come Saturday. Polson opens the tournament with a 10 am match with the Belgrade Lady Panthers. Should they advance, they are scheduled to play the winner of the Hamilton Lady Broncs vs. Mile City Cowgirls contest that same evening. Should Polson lose to Belgrade, they will drop down into consolation play the following day for another 10 am match.
Commentary on various players has been drawn from the author’s own observations integrated with input provided by head coach Jan Toth and her coaching staff along with other volleyball fans.
Season statistics compiled by Terry Werner and culled from the archives of the Northwest Montana A Conference website < http://www.ihigh.com/nwmta >.
Additional statistical input gleaned from records provided in consultation with coach Toth and assistant coach Adrienna DeCock.