JOLIET — The process of becoming a championship contender is usually a long, difficult journey. It’s especially arduous in Class B volleyball in Montana.
Huntley Project has been the sport's gold standard for nearly 20 years, winning 12 state championships since 2003, often defeating a fellow Southern B team in the title match. The Red Devils have had to take on the likes of Red Lodge and Forsyth over the years, but their new challenger is at Joliet.
The J-Hawks have made appearances at the Class B state tournament each of the past two years and went to five sets in a championship loss to Huntley Project last year.
“To get to the championship game and go to five with them, I think what it did for (the Joliet players) is it built their confidence to know that they could beat them,” Joliet coach Colette Webber said in a phone interview with MTN Sports on Wednesday while monitoring her kindergarten class at recess.
Webber had to tend to an “owie” during that recess, but all she needs to manage with her team are the new sky-high expectations that come with playing at Huntley Project’s level. Joliet snapped the Red Devils’ 101-game winning streak earlier this month, winning in five sets to start the season.
“I think it was a real milestone for the girls to finally get over that hurdle,” Webber conceded. “(Huntley Project coach Iona Stookey has) got an amazing program and she’s an amazing coach, so to finally beat them … I think it just gives the girls that feel to know that if you work hard and you do all the stuff in the offseason that you can compete with some of the better teams in the state.”
Now that Joliet has proven it can do more than compete at that level, the J-Hawks know they can’t rest on their laurels. Huntley Project will improve this season and so will all the other championship contenders across the state. Webber and the J-Hawks intend to do the same to give their seniors a proper sendoff.
This season — which “could be the year where these girls surpass expectations,” according to Webber — has been building for years. It really started in 2017, when this year’s seniors were just freshmen. Merrin Schwend, Makenna Bushman and Skyler Wright have continued to develop from young athletes looking to make their marks to team leaders ready to leave their legacies. They started for the J-Hawks as freshmen, reached the state tournament as sophomores and then added last year’s runner-up finish as juniors.
Schwend has served as a part-time setter in Joliet’s 6-2 rotation the past couple years, but she’s now the lone setter in a 5-1 rotation. Bushman is a “powerhouse” middle hitter, and Wright is a reliable outside hitter and defender, according to Webber.
“They’re probably the three … that have stepped up and shown good leadership, because I had some good seniors leave, who were the leaders, and now they’ve stepped into those roles and really filled them nicely,” Webber said.
That senior trio is bolstered by some younger players, namely sophomore outside hitter ChelSea DuBeau and junior middle hitter Kyelynn Coombe, who gained critical experience at previous state tournaments and are now playing key roles.
“The thing that has really surprised me with this group of girls is just their growth and maturity from the years past and their appreciation to play the game,” Webber said. “With everything that’s gone on in the world and them knowing that it could shut down at any time, they just are excited to play every game. And they want to play every game like it’s a championship game, and so their mentality is to appreciate the moment.”