The strength of Western B volleyball clearly lived in the southern half of the region this year.
The top three teams at last week’s Western B Divisional volleyball tournament in Florence each hailed from District 6-B while the other half of the division, District 7-B, struggled.
Florence and Deer Lodge were at the top, the two teams that advanced to the State B tournament starting Thursday in Bozeman, while Loyola Sacred Heart earned a consolation prize in third after eliminating 7-B champ Bigfork in the third-place match.
For Florence coach Jeff Mahler, whose 20-1 squad lost to only Class A Hamilton so far this year, the elevated level of play in his league was noticeable over years past.
“This for us has been the best year we’ve had in having the play get better,” he said. “Loyola, they have a lot of kids that play all year round now … and Deer Lodge, what a big jump, one of the best teams we’d played in our whole division.
“The level in this area is getting better.”
One potential reason for heightened success in District 6-B, which had a 23-13 non-league record before tournament time compared to the 11-32 mark of its 7-B counterparts, could be the availability of club volleyball programs surrounding Missoula, Mahler offered.
Not to say that those opportunities aren’t available elsewhere, he said, but so many of his girls are taking advantage. Almost his entire roster plays volleyball eight months out of the year, something he’s seen in places like Loyola and Corvallis – which is 17-0 – as well.
“I think there was one girl, maybe two that didn’t play volleyball in the offseason on a club team,” Loyola coach Brittany Quick said of her team, which finished the year at 14-8. “It’s important across the board now. It just takes a couple strong athletes who work that hard and a small school can compete.”
League success can be cyclical as well, Quick said, with many of the 7-B teams like Thompson Falls and Eureka playing with youth overhauls this year.
But should it truly be a steady improvement in play, that’s the direction that girls on the west end of the state must head to compete with the juggernauts out east. The Southern B has won 15 of the last 16 State B volleyball championships, thanks in large part to Huntley Project.
The Red Devils are four time defending state champs – with titles in eight of the last 10 seasons – and carry a 30-0 record into this year’s tournament.
“It’s building up this whole area, which is what we need,” Mahler said of his westside players. “We go over there and get our butts kicked. (Improvement) is what we need to go play over there.”