PLENTYWOOD — It’s 500 miles from Plentywood to Bozeman.
It’s a drive the Plentywood volleyball team has made the most of each of the past two seasons, qualifying for the Class C state tournament at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse at Montana State University. But it’s the drive back — the 500 miles from Bozeman to Plentywood — that has helped set the tone for this year’s Wildcats.
“On the bus on the way home last year — and we did this the year before, too — we all go through and make a list of all the things that we believe we need to do to be more successful when we get back to that same tournament,” said Plentywood coach Becky Kukowski. “And then we talk about that list and we go over it and I make a list of my own and then we kind of compare things, and we base our practices on what we saw down there so that we can be ready for that kind of competition.”
These are uncharted waters for the Wildcats, who are not only seeking their third consecutive trip to the state tournament — they’re expecting it. After losing out in two games in 2018 and finishing fourth in 2019, they’re expecting to contend for a trophy this year, too.
Prior to their 2018 appearance, the Wildcats last played at the state tournament in 2012, when they were still competing at the Class B level. Kukowski, a Minnesota native who played college volleyball at University of Minnesota Duluth, took over in 2014 and Plentywood moved to Class C in 2015.
“The girls are on board with what I’m doing and they want to learn, where before they were just content to float through the season and move along,” Kukowski said. “But now they’re hungry and they want that opportunity again, so they’re very coachable. As far as the team goes, buy-in is awesome.”
While the team’s skills are sharpened during practices and regular-season matches, the foundation is laid on those bus rides. That’s when the team determined it needed a better blocking strategy and needed to be more aggressive serving. Those are things the Wildcats believe will help them be more successful at the state tournament.
“It’s a whole different ball game down there,” Kukowski said, noting the variance in style of volleyball in northeastern Montana to that at the state tournament.
“I just felt like we needed more,” she continued. "We need to push a little bit harder. We need a little more game sense, a little more court awareness, a little more strategy to go into this game.”
That “little more” has so far paid dividends as Plentywood has made incremental progress from being satisfied just to make the state tournament in 2018. The Wildcats came back hungry for more in 2019 and won two games at last year’s state tournament. They’re hungrier yet in 2020 and are off to a 6-0 (4-0 District 1C) start.
It helps to have two big-time outside hitters back on the floor in Donn Longan and Liv Wangerin. Longan is the only senior on this year’s team and was an all-state selection last year and a second-team all-conference choice in 2018. Wangerin, a junior, also earned all-state honors last year after receiving second-team all-conference recognition in 2018 as a freshman.
“(Wangerin) is just a phenomenal athlete and gifted natural volleyball player. She’s got some great power and great control as a hitter, but she’s an all-around (player). She can read the hits on defense and she moves well, just makes really great plays,” Kukowski said. “(Longan is) a very similar player as far as being all-around and able to score and see the holes and see the opportunities, and she’s just a great passer. And they work so well together. They look different when they play, but they’re both equally effective, so they’re fun to have.”
Ashtyn Curtiss, another junior, is also back as the team’s full-time setter after receiving all-conference honors last year as a sophomore in a 6-2 rotation.
“She runs the floor and really can turn a crazy ball into a great play, so we’re lucky to have her,” Kukowski said.
Longan, Wangerin and Curtiss will likely garner the headlines and accolades, but it’s a “team effort and you can’t rely on one player,” Kukowski said.
With just one senior and eight juniors in the program, the future is bright, too, but there’s just something about this 2020 team.
“I like everything about this team,” Kukowski said. “It’s really a great, solid group of players. … They work so well together, and there’s just built-in chemistry out there, so I don’t have to work hard to get them into that team concept. They’ve already got it, so we can really focus on skills and improving. It’s just a fun group of girls to work with.”