By EVAN MCCULLERS
Special to Western News
BOZEMAN — It took 10 sets of high-pressure volleyball to crack Libby.
The Loggers, who by Friday evening were the last remaining team from the Northwest in the all-class state tournament at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, came back from two sets down to eliminate Whitefish in the afternoon loser-out match but couldn’t get past Corvallis in the night session, falling to the Blue Devils in five sets for the third time in two weeks.
“I couldn’t have asked for any more,” Libby coach Cindy Ostrem-Johnston said. “They left it all out on the floor.
“(Corvallis) just chipped away at us. We kept battling. Things just didn’t go our way.”
Libby needed a near-miracle to even advance into the evening.
Whitefish dominated the first two sets of the Northwest A matchup and led at several points in the third, but Libby stormed back to take games 3 and 4 before riding a 10-0 run to a fifth-set win in an 18-25, 13-25, 25-16, 25-19, 15-5 victory over the Bulldogs.
“They could have just tossed in the towel,” Ostrem-Johnston said. “We got down again two sets. We’ve been doing that a lot lately. I told them at one point, ‘I’m releasing it to you. It’s yours. You’ve got to take it. I’m stepping back, and you’ve got to go.’”
The Loggers did just that, storming back to end Whitefish’s season after the Bulldogs, led by Cailyn Ross’ 24 kills and six blocks, slipped past Glendive 25-22, 14-25, 25-22, 20-25, 15-12 in another five-setter during the noon session.
The Red Devils gave Whitefish all it could handle and even led 11-8 in the fifth set, but the Bulldogs scored seven of the last eight points to take the match and earn the right to face Libby in another loser-out game.
Addy Connelly has preached mental toughness to her Whitefish team since taking over as head coach during the season, and in the first game, her athletes certainly had it.
“The girls fought hard,” Connelly said. “They dug deep and came out where we needed them to. It wasn’t our prettiest game, but they pulled through and got the job done.”
Against Libby, the mental toughness was a bit harder to come by.
The Bulldogs handled the Loggers without much resistance in the opening two sets, but the Loggers charged back behind monster performances from Mehki Sykes, Brooklyn Rainer and Jayden Winslow. Sykes and Rainer tallied 21 kills and 20 kills, respectively, while Winslow stuffed the stat sheet with 23 digs, nine kills and two aces.
Ostrem-Johnston also lauded Emma Gruber, the junior libero who served through Libby’s back-breaking run in the fifth set.
“That’s that mental toughness we’ve worked on,” Connelly said of Libby’s comeback. “They were able to get some blocks and some kills, kind of take us out of our game, and we struggled mentally to take care of that.”
With the win over Whitefish, Libby advanced to face Corvallis for the fourth time in two weeks.
Similar to the previous three matchups, things were tightly contested throughout.
Libby, once again leaning the heavy-hitting front line of Sykes, Rainer and Winslow, edged Corvallis in the first and third sets to take a 2-1 lead. Winslow went down with an injury in the fourth set as the Loggers were routed, and it appeared the fifth set would be much of the same.
The Blue Devils rode a 7-0 run to a 10-5 lead in the fateful fifth game. The Loggers cut the deficit to two but were never able to catch up.
Even so, Ostrem-Johnston was pleased with her team’s performance in the school’s first state tournament appearance since 2009, even if the ending was not the one it hoped for.
“We came over here to win a state championship, so it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “Some of the things that they were lacking, like mental toughness and that killer instinct, they showed that at this tournament. They showed that especially in this last game. They showed a hell of a lot of heart out there. They brought everything to this last game.”
Libby def. Whitefish
18-25, 13-25, 25-16, 25-19, 15-5
Kills — Libby 59 (Mehki Sykes 21), Whitefish 39 (Cailyn Ross 10). Blocks — Libby 10 (Emily Mossburg 5, Jessika Jones 5), Whitefish 5 (Ross 3). Digs — Libby 65 (Jayden Winslow 23), Whitefish 61 (Serena Hemmingson 16). Assists — Libby 54 (Alli Collins 52), Whitefish 37 (Lauren Schulz 18). Aces — Libby 5 (Winslow 2, Brooklyn Rainer 2), Whitefish 8 (Annisa Brown 3).
Corvallis def. Libby
25-22, 17-25, 21-25, 25-13, 15-11
Kills — Libby 56 (Mehki Sykes 20), Corvallis 48 (Maureen Jessop 14). Blocks — Libby 4 (Emily Mossburg 3), Corvallis 10 (Isabel Evans 5). Digs — Libby 86 (Emma Gruber 23), Corvallis 80 (Casey Fison 19). Assists — Libby 54 (Alli Collins 54), Corvallis 47 (Kate Hurlburt 39). Aces — Libby 11 (Alli Collins 3, Emma Gruber 3), Corvallis 9 (Hurlburt 3).