GRENORA, N.D. -- On Sept. 7, the Westby-Grenora junior high volleyball team was involved in an accident. The bus carrying the team overturned on County Road 5 between Grenora, N.D. and Lambert and came to a rest on its driver’s side.
According to Westby-Grenora high school head coach Stephanie Paine, a coach just returned to work on Thursday, while one adult involved has yet to return to work. Another coach suffered bruised ribs, and several girls have been unable to attend practice due to injuries, including one who was flown to Fargo with damage to her spleen.
Fortunately for the Westby-Grenora high school team, they weren’t on the bus that day. Last year, Westby-Grenora’s junior high and high school volleyball teams rode together to and from games but have yet to do so this year.
The accident brought the communities of Westby and Grenora closer, while also uniting the junior high and high school volleyball teams.
“I don’t really think (it’s affected us much) other than just more bonding with the younger girls,” Paine said. “We did a little bus ride around town. I had my high school girls just get them on the bus the first time after the accident. Their first practice I had my older girls come in and just help kind of coach them a little bit. We’ve done a few things out of the ordinary. They’re pretty strong-minded and haven’t changed how they play or anything. There’s been a lot of little fundraising, gifts given to the girls from different communities. They’ve done pass the boot around to raise some money for parents that maybe didn’t have good insurance, stuff like that.”
As the communities of Westby and Grenora have grown increasingly close after the accident, the Westby-Grenora volleyball team is coming together, too. The Thunder are off to a 5-0 start in the expanded District 1C.
The Thunder will likely rely heavily on 6-foot senior middle hitter Jenna Rust the rest of the season. Rust is among the best athletes in the district, but it’s her intangibles and leadership that have stood out most.
“She’s a great leader. She’s got a lot of other great qualities other than she’s 6-foot tall and can hit and block. She has a really strong serve. She’s just an all-around great volleyball player,” Paine said. “But I would say just as important are her great leadership qualities. She never ever gets down on herself or on anybody else, very encouraging if the other girls start to get a little down. She’s just an all-around great kid.”
Rust won’t be able to carry the Thunder by herself, though. Fellow middle hitter Samantha Ledahl is another weapon for Westby-Grenora. Though Ledahl is more than six inches shorter than Rust, Paine touts her as one of her best hitters, saying "she jumps out of the gym." Junior Bryn Folvag and sophomore Elizabeth Field have been key contributors for the Thunder, as well.
Westby-Grenora will need all hands on deck to advance out of District 1C. The league absorbed District 2C this year and has 12 teams in the conference. The Thunder came up short in its search of the state tournament in 2018, but they’re hoping the competition within District 1C will prepare them for a trip to Bozeman in early November. If so, the Westby-Grenora junior high team will likely be the Thunder’s biggest fans.
“They definitely talk about (making state), but they’re very humble. I think they know that they have to take it one step at a time. They don’t talk excessively about it, but it’s in the background of their minds,” Paine said. “We have some really tough teams in our district here. There are a couple teams we haven’t played yet that are pretty tough. We know for sure Plentywood is going to be a team to beat. Froid-Medicine Lake can come on. Richey-Lambert has improved defensively over the past couple years and they’re a solid team. Fairview is a good team, too. They're not very tall, but their coach has developed a strong defensive team. … I think we’re at a little bit of a disservice in that we only see some of these teams once.”
Westby-Grenora will host Fairview on Friday evening, where the junior high will play before the high school teams for the first time all season.