Students from Gardiner pose with the volleyball team after the Bruins won the District 11C championship over the weekend. (Photo courtesy: Carmen Harbach)

GARDINER – Every year when Montana’s state volleyball tournament grows closer, fans see the familiar program names as favorites to capture trophies in Bozeman’s Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. Billings Senior reigns supreme in Class AA, while Billings Central, Columbia Falls and Belgrade own recent titles in Class A. Huntley Project and Red Lodge have dominated Class B this decade, while Forsyth added a championship of its own.

Class C seems to offer a wider variety of champions as smaller enrollments lead to more parity. But few have found the success of the Gardiner Bruins in recent years.

Carmen Harbach’s program has qualified for six of seven state tournaments this decade, winning three consecutive from 2012-2014. The club finds itself in familiar territory this weekend as a favorite to advance from the Western C Divisional back to the campus of Montana State next weekend.

“It’s always the same expectation, to put together something that’s formidable and to get better throughout the season,” said Harbach, who is in her 14th season as Gardiner’s coach. “This group we have is really fun, they’re a good group of girls and they’ve done that. Every practice I think they’ve improved, we’ve learned something, and every weekend we’ve upped our game a little bit. It’s been a fun progression so far and hopefully we can carry it through this weekend, too.”

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Harbach says she challenges herself in practice and aims to add one new drill per day, at the very least, every other day, to keep things fresh. Challenging the players on the practice courts led to an undefeated conference record and District 11C championship. The Bruins’ lone losses came in a five-set thriller against Class A Livingston and a runner-up finish to Ennis in a tournament earlier this season.

“We really have a diverse group. We have three senior starters and my setter is a senior setter who is a four-year starter, she’s been setting for three years. Her name is Sage Cowley,” Harbach said. “My middle hitter, Christi Webster, is a senior and also my outside hitter, Brook Russell, is a senior. Brook is a big impact player, as well. We have a freshman starter. We have sophomore starters. We have a nice blend of veterans and young kids, and the older girls have a lot of leadership and show them the ropes. The younger girls have really taken hold of what their role is and keep striving to get better.”

The Gardiner volleyball team celebrated its District 11C championship with ice cream. (Photo courtesy: Carmen Harbach)

Harbach says Gardiner enters the divisional tournament with the mantra, “Get better with each game.” The longtime coach says her club can’t attempt to do more than what they are, but need to play their best volleyball of the season to advance from a challenging bracket at Manhattan Christian High School.

“I have my eye on all of them. I don’t trust any of those teams coming in,” laughed Harbach. “Certainly, Ennis has a great squad. They have two great middles and a veteran coach and a veteran group. They’re always a team to keep your eye on and I expect to have a great match with them. I’m hoping we get to see them and have a good match with them. But overall, it’s tournament time. It’s divisionals. All the teams have had good seasons to get where they are and everyone is hungry and wants the same thing. I don’t trust any of them.”

“We’re excited. This is what you work for all year, hoping to live for another week,” she continued. “We’re excited to play good volleyball and hopefully we can put a good team on the floor and good things will come. I just want us to play up to our potential, that’s all I can ask of these girls. I know the effort will be there and hopefully the nerves will go away so they can relax and have fun.”

Gardiner opens up the Western C Divisional on Thursday morning at 11:30 a.m. against Twin Bridges.