By Bruce Sayler
Play for the net numbers to be intense when a first-round NAIA volleyball playoff match is played between Montana Tech and Westmont on Saturday night.
First serve at the Montana Tech HPER Complex is scheduled for 7 p.m
Orediggers head coach Brian Solomon said both lineups provide a good balance of team play and great standouts at net. The quality of their game is shown by both being ranked in the NAIA Top 25 teams. Montana Tech has a 24-8 record and is ranked 17thth while Westmont, of Santa Barbara, Calif., is 22-6 and No. 25 in the rankings.
Both are invited to the tournament at large since the Orediggers were runners-up at Rocky Mountain in the Frontier Conference tournament after winning the league’s regular-season crown. Westmont won the Golden State Athletic Conference regular season title and then finished second to William Jessup in the GSAC tournament.
The winner will advance to the final venue of the NAIA Championship in Sioux City, Iowa. The final will take place from November 30th to December 6th.
“We can keep playing,” Montana Tech head coach Brian Solomon said reluctantly. “We tried to do some homework for (the warriors) this week. They’re a really good team. They are well balanced and play with really good ball control. You have many great children. They have quite a few players 6-foot to 6-3. That height has a big impact on their game.”
Senior Lexi Malone, a 6-3 middle hitter, was Westmont’s side with a .355 batting average and 2.6 kills on the set average. She hit 98 blocks this season.
Also outstanding is 5-10 junior outside hitter Phoebe Minch with a team-high 2.92 kills per set. She also averages 3.84 digs per set. The setter is 5-8 elder Keelyn Kistner and she’s averaging 5.42 assists per set. She fired 40 serve aces during the season.
Head coach Ruth McGolpin brings height and capability to the net with 6-2 rookie Alexis Dennick, 6-1 sophomore Sara Krueger, 6-1 rookie Ashley Boswell, 6-1 sophomore Taylor Distelberg and 6-0 winger Jessie Terlizzi. At the other end of the spectrum is 4-foot-10 freshman libero Ilyssa Ocampo.
Solomon is in his 11th yearth He led the Orediggers last season and has now led them to the NAIA playoffs five times. This year he was named Frontier Conference Coach of the Year for the fourth time. He has been honored as such four times, has a 179-105 record at Montana Tech and has now won three Frontier Conference regular-season titles, Montana Tech Sports Information’s Nick Bowsher said in notes provided to the media.
“This match is going to be big on both sides of the net,” Solomon said. “We had a great regular season and we enjoyed a great season. I’m happy that our players can experience that.
“It definitely took some time to get into our rhythm this year. The benefit is that we had a lot of players willing to contribute. We have many opportunities to compete with teams.”
A few new faces added to Montana Tech’s roster this year, mixing well with reliable returnees to form the league’s championship team. The leading returnee was 6-1 senior winger Maureen “Mo” Jessop, recently named Frontier Conference Player of the Year. A four-time honoree from all conferences, Jessop was selected to the first team for the third consecutive year. She led the league in kills with 416 total and a 3.85 per set average. She also led the conference at 36 in Assen.
The Orediggers had two more All-Conference first-team selections in 5-11 senior outside hitter Olivia Muir and 6-1 senior middle blocker Taylor Henley. Muir was fifth in the league with 355 kills and a .222 batting average. Henley was first in the blocks with 135 and ranked ninth nationally. She had a .270 batting average for second place in the conference and had 231 kills for a career-best 2.14 per set.
Montana Tech Setter McKenna Kaelber was selected to the All-Conference second team. The 5-11 senior averaged 8.05 assists per game. Oredigger Olivia Caddy, a 5-5 libero, was voted Frontier Conference Freshman of the Year. She made 480 digs in total, averaging 4.17 per set, and she also served 16 aces.
“We have a lot of good players in the mix,” Solomon said. “I like this team. The players are selfless and team-oriented. They just support each other.
“And on Saturday we have our hands full.”