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Three-peat: LHS wins volleyball divisionals

by Brad FuquaWestern News
| November 11, 2009 11:00 PM

It took three close matches between Libby and Polson to decide the Northwestern A tournament title. And in a scorching conclusion to the final step before state on Saturday night, the Lady Loggers finally claimed the conference’s top prize.

“It shows the Northwest that we do not give up and that we’re No. 1 in our conference,” Libby senior Katie Emery said following the Loggers’ 26-24, 10-25, 25-22, 26-24 victory over Polson in Saturday night’s second championship match.

Libby (9-3, 11-5) now heads to the state tournament Thursday through Saturday on the campus of Montana State University in Bozeman. The Lady Loggers will face Stevensville, the No. 2 team out of the Southwest, in the opening round. With a win, LHS would play either Billings Central or Park (Livingston) in the second round.

“I don’t know how Park is … I know Billings Central was tough last year and will be tough again this year,” LHS coach Cindy Ostrem-Johnston said. “Anytime you get to the state tournament, you’re down to the final eight teams and you have to play well to win.”

Libby definitely played well at divisionals and the victory over the Lady Pirates in the second championship match goes down as one of the most exciting in the program’s history. Libby had to compose itself after missing on an opportunity to close out Polson in the first championship match.

The Loggers led 13-8 in the fifth game of that match and needed just two more points for the title. But the Pirates rallied to steal the win and force a second title match.

Jackie Mee, LHS senior making her final appearance in front of the home fans, said the team was naturally upset after the loss. But the players worked through those emotions to prepare themselves for the challenge ahead.

“At first, we were pretty angry because we blew it,” Mee said. “It was pretty quiet at first … then we said, ‘let’s do it.’”

Polson played well in the first game of the big finale but Libby ended up taking it after trailing 19-13. Alex Kulbeck’s kill for a sideout followed up with an Emery kill and an Alysha Martin ace serve seemed to turn the tide.

The Pirates reached game point at 24-22 only to see Libby score four straight. Kulbeck started the final run with a sideout kill and then Polson followed with back-to-back hits into the net. Kulbeck got the final point on a dink.

“I’m not sure how we won that game,” Ostrem-Johnston said. “If we would’ve lost, I think it would’ve changed the outcome.”

Polson flexed its muscle in the second game with a 25-10 win and took momentum into the third. But the Lady Loggers issued a counterattack to regain control. LHS led 10-3 in the early going and never trailed in game 3, although Polson did make things interesting. Emery clinched it with a big hit on point 25.

“It feels so good coming off your hand … just pounding the ball,” Emery said with a smile.

In the fourth game, Libby again played well early and got out to a 3-0 lead with two Mee kills and a Kulbeck ace serve. After Polson tied it, the Loggers went on a four-point run with Emery serving. Mee was in classic form with powerful hits and deceiving dinks to keep the Pirate defense guessing.

“We want to end it now, have that killer instinct,” Mee said about the fourth game.

As expected, Polson did not roll over and die because of the early deficit. The Pirates battled back and took its first lead at 13-12. The two schools traded point after point and Polson held a 24-23 lead with a chance to even the match.

However, Mee’s soft touch on point 24 tied the game and full-force kill on point 25 brought Libby to match point. Martin got the final point on a hit that Polson couldn’t handle.

“We talked about one of our goals was to win divisionals on our own floor,” Mee said. “We were tired but pumped and ready for them.”

Ostrem-Johnston said going in that all of the pressure was on Polson after the Pirates had gone through the conference unbeaten.

“It was a total contribution … the crowd made a huge difference, too,” Ostrem-Johnston said. “It was just awesome in the gym. That energy … the players really fed off that.”

Both Emery and Mee said the team worked on a different offensive attack and that played a role in defeating the Pirates.

“We incorporated a quicker offense and mixed in some things and played great,” Mee said. “We had some great digs.”

The Lady Loggers opened with a 25-15, 25-10, 25-23 victory over upset-minded Whitefish on Friday to cruise into a semifinal matchup with Polson. In the 21-25, 26-24, 26-24, 27-25 thriller over the Pirates on Friday evening, Libby found itself full of timely, big-play ability.

The Pirates came out and grabbed the first game and then vaulted to a 10-2 lead in the second. But then the Loggers turned on the switch and got on a roll with Mee at the service line.

First, Libby got the sideout on a Polson net violation. Then, the Loggers followed with six straight points to pull to within, 10-9. Kulbeck had back-to-back kills during the stretch and Martin had a big hit on point 8.

Libby didn’t completely catch the Pirates until the very end of the game. Polson had game point at 24-22 only to see the Loggers stay alive on a Pirate serve into the net followed up with points by Kulbeck and Mee. With the game tied, 24-24, Mee scored on a dink for the Libby lead and the game-winner followed when Polson was whistled with an illegal hit on the serve receive.

In the third game, Polson again led early on but the Loggers stayed close. The two teams were tied, 24-24, when the Loggers clinched it on back-to-back points by Mee. On the final point, Mee fooled the Polson defense with the light touch. Moments earlier, Mee had attempted one of her scorching hits and Polson was thinking block the next time around. Instead, Mee dinked the ball over their heads for the game 3 win.

In the fourth game, Libby took its first lead at 10-9 on a two-handed, soft-touch kill by Logan Best.

Polson and Libby battled as usual until the late going and the Loggers again found a way to finish on top. This time, LHS reached match point at 24-23 following an ace serve by Emery and then again at 25-24 after a kill by Mee. Finally at 26-25, the Loggers pulled it out when a Pirate hit attempt sailed long.

Kulbeck had a scoring run of seven straight serves for points. With the sideout that started the streak, Libby turned a 9-6 deficit into a 14-9 lead. Polson later had an eight-point streak of its own with Marissa McCrea serving.

The Loggers advanced straight into the championship match while Polson dropped down into the loser’s bracket to play Columbia Falls. The Pirates won, 25-20, 25-20, 25-11, to set up the showdown with the Loggers.

In what would turn out to be the first championship match, Polson pulled out the win, 18-25, 25-19, 16-25, 25-20, 16-14.

Libby came out strong in the opening game and won rather easily by seven points. The Loggers never trailed and held a 19-9 lead at one point. When it appeared that the Pirates might rally in the late going, Ostrem-Johnston called timeout, the team calmed down and closed it out when Kulbeck found an open spot in the Polson defense for the point.

The Lady Pirates countered with a strong beginning in the second game and then held on to even up the match, 25-19. Libby had a couple of strong runs to try to overcome an early 12-4 deficit but in the end, the hole was just too deep.

In the pivotal third game, the Lady Pirates scorched their way to an early 5-0 lead. Libby came right back, however, and tied it up at 7-7 behind Emery’s serving. Later trailing 9-8, Libby made several point-saving plays on defense that turned the tide over the rest of the game.

Malena Sweet, junior defensive specialist, made a diving save in the back row to keep the ball alive. A long back-and-forth rally ensued and the Loggers ended up getting the point on a Mee kill.

Libby outscored Polson, 16-7, from that point forward with Mee scoring on several power hits.

Polson took the fourth game behind big hits from Nicole Davey and persevered late to ward off a Logger comeback. The Pirates took control midway through with Kayla Duford serving to turn a 10-10 tie into a six-point lead.

The heart-breaking game 5 loss followed. Libby led 13-8 with good runs at the service line by Emery and Mee. Martin was scoring a lot on kills and Kulbeck was in top form when Mee had to play in the back row. Still, Polson rallied with Staci Benson serving. The Pirates got a sideout and cut the deficit to 13-9 on a Loni Havlovick hit. Benson then served for six straight points with Havlovick, Breanne Kelley and Benson all connecting on kills for a 14-13 lead.

Libby tied it at 14-14 on a Kulbeck hit to stop the Benson streak. But Havlovick got a sideout right away with a kill and Duford served for the win.

“It was a tough loss; they knew they just kind of gave it away,” Ostrem-Johnston said. “They had a chance to put it away and they let them come back and take it from them. But the great thing was, we had a break and they bounced back well. We came back on a mission to win that second championship match.”

In Ostrem-Johnston’s 17 years as coach, Libby has qualified for state 11 times – including each of the last three years.