SIDNEY — Alyssa Pretty Weasel had a performance for the ages on Thursday night.
Pretty Weasel, a senior, had 21 kills in Thursday night's quarterfinal match against Columbia Falls to help the Bulldogs upset the previously unbeaten Wildkats and guarantee the Bulldogs a third-place trophy or better at the state volleyball tournament for the first time since 2005.
"When (Pretty Weasel) is on, we definitely want the ball in (Pretty Weasel's) hand. When the game is on the line, that's the person you want to see swinging," Hardin head coach Sarah Passes said. "I think she's also just blended well with a bunch of other hitters. When need be, we have other hitters that get up and put the ball down, so it's definitely a big team effort."
"She's literally the smartest player on our team," senior Jonna Lind said. "She's never been hot like this before. This is different, it brought out something else in her. She's doing amazing, though."
For much of the evening, it appeared as if Hardin would come up just short against Columbia Falls, the Western A champion, but the Bulldogs battled back from a 2-1 deficit to force a fifth set. Pretty Weasel then put the Bulldogs on her back, racking up kill after kill to put Hardin quickly ahead 7-1, which was just enough cushion for the Bulldogs to hold on.
Pretty Weasel is one of three 6-footers for Hardin, while Lind stands at 5-foot-11. The Bulldogs have all the size, athleticism and talent needed to bring home a first-place finish.
"It's a pretty big luxury to have a team that sits right at 6-foot. Both middles, (Lind) sits right below six foot. We're a tall offensive team and it's nice to have as a coach," Passes said.
It's come full circle for the Hardin head coach, too. Passes, who is in her first year as head coach of the Bulldogs, was a senior the last time Hardin took home hardware from the state volleyball tournament and was a freshman when the Bulldogs won in 2002.
"It's really special. My first season with them, you have lots of expectations, but there's a lot that can go wrong as a first-year coach," Passes said. "It's really special for me to get them back here to the state tournament and then get some hardware to bring back to Hardin for (the first time) in 15 years."
Hardin will take on Billings Central on Friday night at 6 p.m. in the undefeated semifinal. The two met in last weekend's Eastern A title game, which Billings Central won in a 3-0 sweep. The Bulldog team that played Thursday night looked drastically different from the one that lost to the Rams last week.
"I think just a loss made us want to practice harder and go hard for state since it's all the seniors' last year," Pretty Weasel said. "We had a lot of competition (in the season) and it just got us prepared for state."
"It's more a mental state with them. They're a physically talented team, but you saw last week they can mentally tank fast. (Thursday) they just picked themselves up. They played as a team (Thursday) very well. Last week and any other time we've met Central we just seem to have this mental block that we can't get over. I think we just need to get over that mental block, like we did (Thursday) after losing that set and coming back and fighting hard. Those are the things in that mental game that they need to just get over to beat them," Passes said. "I hope they feel it and see how good they really are."
Friday night's winner will be guaranteed a top-two finish and will need to be beaten twice on Saturday to be eliminated.