BOZEMAN — After losing the fourth set and trailing by four early in the fifth-set tiebreaker, the scoreboard might have said things were looking a little dicey for Billings West.
But Golden Bears coach Monica Grimsrud didn’t see things that way. Neither did the players.
West rallied in that fifth set to beat Helena 25-27, 25-18, 25-14, 18-25, 15-13 in the second round of the Class AA state volleyball tournament Thursday at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.
The win sends the Bears (20-10) into Friday’s undefeated semifinal, and guarantees them a state-tournament trophy for the first time since the Bears placed third in 2011.
“I never thought we’d be here, I know the rest of our seniors never thought we’d be here,” said West senior Madeline Dawson, tears still rimming her eyes. “We’ve completely changed our program. This is huge for us.”
In a cool twist, Grimsrud’s Bears beat the team she helped win a state championship in 2010. Grimsrud was an integral part of a Helena squad that beat West for the 2010 title, part of a two-year title-run for the Bengals.
“Anytime they’re not playing us, I’m going to cheer for Helena,” said Grimsrud, in her first full season as the Bears’ coach after taking over on an interim basis toward the end of last season. “But I’m a West High Bear now, so I’m Bears all the way.”
Helena (22-7) drops into loser-out play Friday at 4 p.m. The Bengals were led by Jamie Pickens’ 17 kills and eight blocks.
Kaitlin Grossman had 14 kills, and Shauna Stene and Ellie Scherffius had six blocks each for the Bears, who will play in Helena Capital Friday at 6 p.m. with a championship berth at stake.
They got there by playing some of their best volleyball of the season, especially when the Bears trailed 6-2 in the decisive set.
“It's weird to say, but I've never had a doubt in my mind these girls can pull out a game," Grimsrud said. "They've come from much worse deficits and it just takes lighting a little fire under them sometimes."
Helena Capital 3, Bozeman 2
There was no time to worry about how tight the match was. It was just time to be caught up in the moment.
“You’re aware of what the situation is, but it was such a fun game,” Capital senior Emily Kidder said moments after the Bruins edged Bozeman 25-19, 26-24, 20-25, 19-25, 15-10 in the final match of the night. “Every point, you’re just scrapping for every ball. It’s just crazy.”
The Bruins, who are top-ranked in Class AA and improved to 26-2, advance to Friday’s unbeaten semifinal. There, they’ll face Billings West, which won its second-round match earlier in the evening.
“West is coming on strong,” Capital coach Rebecca Cleveland said. “We got to see a bit of their match today and I’m impressed just by the progress Monica has made with the program. I’m looking forward to competing with them.”
Capital had three players with double-digit kills: Dani Bartsch (15), Paige Bartsch (14), and Sarah Ashby (13). Audrey Hofer had 41 assists, and Paige Bartsch added nine blocks.
The fifth set was tied seven times before the Bruins broke away. They scored the final four points of the match, sending Bozeman (22-8) into a 2 p.m. loser-out match. Bozeman coach Ashley Obtar said her team was in good spirits despite the outcome.
“This is not a bad loss, let’s just say that,” she said. “There’s no recovering … it’s more of we’re so excited that this is how we’re playing at state and hope there’s a long journey ahead.”
Mara Lynch led the Hawks with 17 kills and Sasha Hathaway had 15. Emma Fox had 41 assists and Ayla Embry finished with 30 digs.
Bozeman 3, Kalispell Flathead 0
Sasha Hathaway had 10 kills and Ayla Embry 23 digs as Bozeman advanced into the second round of the tournament with a sweep of Kalispell Flathead.
Mara Lynch added nine kills and 15 digs and Bella Wanderer eight kills. Emma Fox had 35 assists.
Madde Boles led Flathead with 10 kills, and Hannah O’Dell had seven blocks.
Flathead (19-12) takes on Great Falls CMR Friday at noon in a loser-out match.
Helena Capital 3, Great Falls CMR 0
Drawing top-ranked Helena Capital in the first round would be a tough task, Great Falls CMR coach Patrick Hiller knew.
He also knows, following a sweep at the hands of the Bruins, that his team can go one or two ways now that’s it’s dropped down to the loser’s bracket.
“I’ve had a lot of teams right here decide their tournament’s over,” Hiller said after Capital’s 25-18, 25-14, 25-19 victory over his team. “They’ll decide in the stands, they’ll decide at dinner that the tournament’s over for them. We’ll see. We’re young. We’ll see how they respond and see if we can’t get them going.”
Sarah Ashley led Capital (26-2) with 11 kills and seven digs and Paige Bartsch had nine kills, seven blocks and four aces. The Bruins advanced to play a second-round match on Thursday.
Allie Olsen led the Rustlers with eight kills. Lauren Lindseth added 14 digs for CMR (17-14), which plays a noon loser-out match on Friday.
“We’ve seen (Capital) play, we’ve seen those girls for a long time,” Hiller said. “We knew that they’d need to have an off day and we’d need to have a pretty superior day, and obviously we had more of an off-day for them.”
Helena 3, Billings Senior 0
The Helena Bengals volleyball team didn’t give its coach much reason to nitpick it opening performance. In fact, it was just the opposite. Lindsey Day pretty much liked everything she saw.
“They came out ready to compete and ready to play,” Day said after the Bengals swept Billings Senior. “They came out fired up and played like it.”
After what was a relatively close set, the Bengals, the No. 2 seed from the Western AA, had little trouble with the No. 3 seed from the Eastern AA.
“I said, ‘Today, Helena was better than us,’ "Senior coach Sue Dvorak said. “In my opinion, there’s no shame in losing to a good team.”
Dvorak said her team is still trying to “figure things out” since a knee injury to Kola Bad Bear ended the season for the Broncs’ star middle. Senior, though, is running out of time. Though the Broncs, who are the two-time Class AA runners-up, are still alive for everything in this double-elimination format, they’ll drop into the loser’s bracket where they’ll play Missoula Hellgate at 10 a.m. on Friday.
“We’ll get there. Hopefully we can work our way back,” Dvorak said. “The great thing about this tournament is there’s a second chance. We’ll bring them back to the hotel, kind of put them back together again after the disappointment and say this is not normal Senior volleyball.”
Jamie Pickens had 13 kills for Helena, which doubled up Senior 34-17 in that category. The Bengals advanced to a second-round match later in the day against West.
Karli Steiner had four kills and 11 digs to lead the Broncs.
West 3, Hellgate 0
Missoula Hellgate’s situation was dire, but you couldn’t tell that by their huddle.
Down 2-0 in sets to Billings West, and trailing 19-10 in the third, the Knights were a bundle of laughs. Not what you’d expect from a team facing a sweep in the first round.
“We were just trying to crack jokes, and just trying to get them out of that pressure that they were feeling out there and just to think about something else for a second,” Hellgate coach Matty Hancock said. “This is the big dance and this is a lot of (the players’) first time here. I was just trying to create that loose environment.”
The attempt at levity didn’t pay immediate dividends – the Golden Bears did, indeed, sweep 25-21, 25-19, 25-15 – but maybe it will from here on it. The Knights, at their first state tournament since 2015, play at 10 a.m. in a loser-out match on Friday with still everything to play for.
“Anything is possible,” Hancock said. “There’s a lot of great teams here but there’s a lot of beatable teams as well. So hopefully we can bring our ‘A’ game tomorrow and be more successful.”
West advanced to a second-round match later on Thursday.