Casey Stites prepares to set the ball in Bozeman's 3-1 win over Great Falls CMR on Saturday (Alec Bofinger/MTN Sports)

(Editor’s note: University of Montana media release)

MISSOULA — The Montana volleyball program signed Olivia Bradley, a 6’ 1” middle blocker from Nampa, Idaho, to a National Letter of Intent this week. Casey Stites, a 5’ 9” setter from Bozeman, also will be joining the Grizzlies. She’ll arrive in January as an early enrollee.

Both will be freshmen in the fall in what will be coach Allison Lawrence’s second season.

“Both Olivia and Casey are extremely hard workers who are dedicated to getting this program competitive with the top teams in the Big Sky Conference. They’ve been onboard with that since Day 1,” said Lawrence.

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Bradley is a senior at Skyview High, which has won the last two Idaho Class 4A state championships. She plays club for the Idaho Crush and was part of a team that made history last summer.

Competing at the USA Volleyball Girls’ Junior National Championships in Minneapolis under coach Caroline Bower, the Crush became the first team from Idaho to qualify for the tournament’s Open Division, its highest classification.

After defeating club teams from Nebraska and Arizona, the Crush advanced to the Gold bracket, placing it among the top 24 teams in the nation at the U17 level.

“Olivia is someone we knew we wanted in our program very early. She has all the characteristics we look for in what we’re trying to instill in this program with every recruit we get,” said Lawrence.

“She plays on one of the top club programs in the country under one of the best club coaches, and she always stood out to us as a playmaker on that team. She stands out in the way she is very efficient and smart on the court. She is a composed problem solver.”

Bradley was voted to the all-tournament team at both the 2016 and ’17 Class 4A state tournaments.

“I toured several other campuses, and as soon as I got to Montana I just knew it was where I was meant to be,” said Bradley. “I loved the campus, the coaches and the team.

“I want to major in elementary education and they have that available. That was very important to me. I also wanted to go to a college where the community is very involved with the school, and that is exactly how Missoula is. I fell in love with the school.”

Stites will be the second daughter of Jon and Jessica to become a Grizzly. Sydney Stites was a member of the Montana softball program in 2016 and ’17.

She was voted the Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year and first-team All-Big Sky in 2016. As a sophomore she helped Montana, in just its third year as a program, to its first Big Sky championship and a spot in the NCAA tournament. She is now a junior at Iowa State.

“Growing up with Sydney, I got to see all the hard work and dedication she put into the sport she loved,” said Stites. “What I learned from her is that if you want to get what others don’t have, you have to be willing to do what others won’t do.

“She and I are similar in that when we have a goal, we go get it. It was cool watching her make a statement at Montana by helping a softball program that was so new rise to the top. She set a high standard for the Stites family, and I’m ready to beat it.”

Stites has been making trips to Missoula on a regular basis since her freshman year to train and compete with the Montana Volleyball Academy. She becomes the first setter to come out of the MVA system and play at the Division I level.

“Casey is one of the hardest-working young athletes we’ve ever recruited. That’s what stood out from the beginning,” said Lawrence. “She didn’t stand out as a player at first. She was still learning the setting position, still getting a lot of technical training and still learning what that role required of her.

“I’d see her about once a month, and the amount of improvement she showed was dramatic. Her rate of improvement has been far beyond the normal arc of a high schooler. She’s only at the tip of what she can do physically and mentally. With her work ethic, I know she’ll reach her potential here.”

Stites will graduate early from Bozeman High and enroll at Montana in January, at the start of the spring semester. The Grizzlies begin their offseason training in February, with practices and a match schedule that extends into April.

It will provide Stites a head start, giving her extra weeks and months with her new teammates that she wouldn’t have gotten had she followed the typical schedule and arrived in August.

“Rather than having two weeks to adjust to running an offense for a new team, she’s going to have six months,” said Lawrence. “That’s not for everybody, but for her, that’s what she wanted to do, and I think it’s going to be great for her.

“As a setter, she’ll be able to learn our offense and build relationships with our hitters. To be able to build that rapport is going to be huge for her.”

Stites committed to Montana under its previous head coach, prior to her junior year. For as much upheaval as the coaching change to Lawrence could have created, it was the right one for Stites.

“Allison and I have developed a relationship that is really special to me,” said Stites. “When she got hired, it was one of the best feelings. Not only was I going to get to play at my dream school, I was going to get to play for a coach who I know is going to take us places.

“She carries herself in a way that as a player and a person I really look up to. I have always been able to be honest with her, and that means a lot to me. She is such a great role model in my life. I feel lucky that I’ll have her with me through my years in college.”

Montana will have additional newcomers on its 2018 team as well. Those additions will be announced in the spring.