CHOTEAU — We live in an unpredictable world, but there are few constants in life: death, taxes, sunrise, sunset and the Choteau Bulldogs winning volleyball games and contending for titles.
Despite one of the smallest enrollments in Class B, the Bulldogs are a powerhouse program. The roster turns over year to year, and their front line is often undersized, but Choteau keeps racking up wins and trophies.
Since 2007 under head coach Ann Funk, Choteau has won 13 district titles and 12 divisional titles and qualified for state 13 times.
“Everyone plays volleyball in Choteau,” said senior middle blocker Ellie Lee. “I started when I was in sixth grade. And you just watch this amazing program year after year have just incredible success.”
Christine Funk, coach Ann Funk’s daughter and a senior captain, has grown up in the Choteau tradition and knows firsthand what it takes to contend annually.
"We definitely work on a lot of fundamentals and everything, we just get really good at the basics. That’s how you build the program from the start and we're good to go,” Christine said. “I remember times when I was little, like going to state and watching all the high schoolers play. Then finally being able to actually play for my mom, I saw it from a different level. It's been cool.”
Coach Funk points to kids buying in at a young age.
“The kids that we get, typically they want to be here. They want to find something that becomes their passion, their unique treasure. And for us as coaches, granted, we do a lot of fundamental work with these kids, and that's important in our program, but these kids thrive on it,” Funk said. “They take it on, they succeed. You have expectations and the kids will live up to expectations if you have faith them in. Every year, it's a little bit different, but they all thrive and they all find success. And it's wonderful.”
There is one thing that alludes the team however. Despite all of the district and divisional trophies, the Bulldogs have yet to have a breakthrough at the state tournament.
The Bulldogs won state titles in 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1995 but haven’t claimed a trophy since. Under Funk, Choteau has finished in third place five times with no championship game appearances. That’s not lost on this year’s seniors.
"The past three years we've played hard,” Lee said. “We put our heart on the court, but this year it just feels like everyone works a little harder, tries a little more. So it would mean a lot to just go a little bit farther.”
Of course, during this unprecedented season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing is guaranteed.
“This season more than usual has been day by day, game by game, weekend by weekend,” Ann Funk said. “We just never know. When we started the season, my gut was churning. It still is. Now you're getting to the end and I’m keeping my fingers crossed. We hope that we have an opportunity to do it this year, because this team is as good as any I've ever brought in. I'm excited to see, if we get the opportunity, what they could do.”
On the flip side, Choteau has seen several of its matches canceled due to COVID-19-related issues around the state, which has allowed it to schedule some non-traditional opponents like Manhattan Christian, Townsend and Fort Benton that should help it prepare for the postseason.
“(Fort Benton) was a very last-minute thing. We lost Rocky Boy in our division and we just now lost matches against Florence. So we called Fort Benton thinking it would be a close trip and a good match,” Funk said. “And I think their girls and our girls are kind of excited to play somebody we never see.”
With the state tournament ruled out in Bozeman this year, Choteau doesn’t know what its path to the postseason will look like. Details for venue and format are still being worked out, so the Bulldogs aren't taking any opportunity to step on the court for granted.
“I pray every night that we get an opportunity to keep going,” Ann Funk said. “So I truly hope we can maintain it and keep it going. I hope we can keep doing what it takes to be on the courts.”
Choteau (15-1) lost its opener to reigning Class C state champion Manhattan Christian in five sets. Since then, the Bulldogs have reeled off 15 straight victories - winning 42 sets and dropping just three.