Bulldogs surge to Frontier Conference tourney final

M.P. Regan
Wednesday, November 16, 2022
Making some noise

Members of the University of Montana Western volleyball team celebrate after a point won at last weekend’s Frontier Conference Volleyball Tournament in Butte, where the Bulldogs made the final before falling to Rocky Mountain College. Lindsey Branch photo

The University of Montana Western volleyball team saved its best for last weekend, when the Bulldogs climbed from the bottom of the league to the brink of its summit at the 2022 Frontier Conference Volleyball Tournament in Butte.

“I think just they started to believe in themselves a little bit more,” said UMW Head Coach Katie Lovett of the key to her team’s impressive two-day climb at the six-team tourney that it entered as the last seed following a 2-8 showing in the league’s regular season.

The Western women started their Frontier tourney run with their first win in a long time over nemesis Carroll College.

“I did not realize how long it had been since Western had taken a match from them,” said Lovett of UMW volleyball’s first win over the third-seeded Carroll’s Fighting Saints (6-4, 14-12) since 2014.

A long time coming, the victory took a relatively long time to pull off, with the opening-round match extending into a fifth set—and an extra point in that—before the Bulldogs triumphed 13-25, 26-24, 25-15, 16-25, 16-14.

“Carroll is historically, year after year, such a great team,” noted Lovett of a Fighting Saints program that posted winning records its last 13 seasons and advanced to the national tourney in 2012 and 2016.

“So, it was a nice win against Carroll and a great confidence boost,” said the fourth-year UMW head coach.

The “reward” for that hard-fought victory—a showdown a few hours later on Friday in the semifinals against Montana Tech (9-1, 24-8), the tourney’s top seed and host—as well as the no. 15 team in the entire NAIA.

The Western women had looked almost nearly every bit as good as the Orediggers when the teams battled across a five-set thriller won by Tech the week before in Dillon.

And the Bulldogs looked a lot better than that Friday evening as they vanquished Tech in four sets (19-25, 25-16, 25-18, 25-23).

“After dropping that first set, our players really dialed in and focused. We really wanted it,” said Lovett of her team’s attitude adjustment during its win over Tech that earned Western a spot in the tourney final.

Jazi Smith notched 35 kills for the Bulldogs in the tourney’s opening two matches.

“Jazi, she really found her groove late in the year,” noted Lovett of the 5-foot-11-inch Smith, who also tallied 52 assists in the tourney’s two opening games.

“And our setter, Kaylee Frtiz, she’s been doing really well as well,.” added Lovett of the Kalispell product.

“I feel like our whole team, all around, came together well.”

The Bulldogs continued together on their remarkable tourney run into the final against second-seeded Rocky Mountain College, taking the first set, 25-23, from a Battlin’ Bears team that had swept the Dawgs’ in Dillon at UMW’s regular season finale the previous weekend.

A block and a kill in the early going by UMW freshman Jordan Olson helped UMW establish a 4-2 advantage.

And two points proved a significant advantage during a first game in which the score stayed tight throughout.

Rocky took four straight points to stake its biggest lead of the game, 21-18, before Western rallied from behind down the stretch.

A combo block by Peyton Vogl and Fritz on by Rocky assassin Bella Bryan, followed by Smith overpowering a would-be Bear block knotted the score at 22-all.

Olson rose together with Vogl to reject an attempted Rocky spike to give the Bulldogs a one-point lead, 23-22.

After Bryan neatly tucked a kill just inside the back corner to again tie the game, Olson terminated a backand- forth point with a spike from the right side to get the Bulldogs to set point, 24-23.

That set point proved a doozy, with the ball crossing back and forth over the net 13 times, the last with terminal velocity off a block at the middle of the net by Vogl to win the point and set for Western.

“I think we took more ownership of the hustle plays and having good serve-receive to open up the offense a little more. And we’ve worked all season on our blocking game and our defense,” said Lovett of the surge that propelled her Bulldogs to the conference tourney final and then to within two games of the league tourney title and an automatic bid to the NAIA national tournament.

“I know Western can always come on strong. They are a pretty young team,” said Rocky Head Coach Yang Yang of the first-set win by the Bulldogs.

“I didn’t change anything. My girls just kept swinging,” insisted Yang of the stay-the-course approach that helped her Bears to take the next three sets and the match and league tourney title.

“We always do well on digging. But tonight we did really well on blocking,” said Yang, who got a combined 11 blocks from Kyra Oakland and Taylor Wolf.

“And both of our outside hitters were swinging really well,” added Yang, who got a baker’s dozen of kills from Bryan and another out of Makenna Bushman in the final.

“Rocky has a phenomenal offense— they have so many weapons on their side,” commented Lovett.

“And then their defense, with Ayla Embry, she’s such a lights-out kind of player,” stated Lovett of the Rocky libero who recorded 34 digs against Western on her way to gaining her sixth-consecutive Frontier Conference Defensive Player of the Week honor.

Montana Western’s Peyton Vogl took the league’s Offensive Player of the Week award after notching 38 kills at the league tourney.

Vogl is eligible to return next season for the Bulldogs, along with fellow sophomores and major 2022 contributors Smith, Kelsey Goddard, Kaylee Kopp and Danyel Martin, who recorded 32 kills and 9.5 blocks at the tourney.

”The majority of our team are sophomores and we have a freshman who played a lot this year,” noted Lovett of Olson, one of seven freshman on this year’s team.

“So we are really excited about our future,” said Lovett.

“With the recruits we have coming in will help out our depth and hopefully raise our level of play even more.”

The Bulldogs will lose four seniors, all of whom contributed mightily in tangible and intangible ways to the program’s revival.

“I’ve been here four years, so this will be my first graduating class with people who have been here the whole time with me,” said Lovett of the quartet of Morgan Stenger, Ramyia Wendt, Katie Casagrande and Morgan Kirch “They have been super supportive of their teammates. They will step into any role, whole-heartedly, whether on the bench or on the court.”

“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Stenger of her impending departure from Montana Western.

“It’s bittersweet, because I’m ready to move on in life, but it’s been a long journey,” said the Columbia Falls HS grad who started six seasons ago with the program, emerging as a team leader from that start.

“My first two years, I was rehabbing to come back because I had five hip surgeries. So, just getting through that really made volleyball all the more special for me,” recalled Stenger, who established herself as a team leader from her earliest days in the program.

“I love the sport and I love competing and the girls—all my teammates are so awesome,” added Stenger, a three-time academic all-conference pick who cited fellow senior Wendt as a particularly enjoyable teammate.

“Ramiya is awesome. We all love her so much.”

“I love Dillon,” said Wendt, who came to UMW from western Oregon and gained a spot on the Frontier Conference’s Academic All-Conference team while studying environmental science.

“It’s a good town to go to school in and a good community.”

“The community here as a whole is like a huge family,” said Casagrande, whose mother and grandfather went to the University of Montana Western.

“I came down here and I love it. I don’t go home in the summer and would recommend it to everyone,” said the business major.

“I just love the environment here, the atmosphere, the Dawg family,” said UMW senior Morgan Kirch, who began going to volleyball city league games in Billings at the age of four with her mom.

“I just love being with my team and going all out,” added the defensive specialist whose determination to deny opponents’ kill attempts often sent her diving to the hardwood in Straugh Gymnasium.

“I actually became best friends with the floor,” laughed Kirch, a health and human performance major.

“I love playing on this floor. I love the Bulldog atmosphere, just being with my teammates every day and playing with girls who wanted to be as much as me and play the sport we love.”

“This team—they’re my sisters,” declared Casgrande.

“We always have each other’s backs, on and off the court. You can just really see we really care about each other.”