MISSOULA — Elsa Godwin’s overseas trip this past summer was about assists rather than kills.

The 5-foot-10 outside hitter from Missoula Sentinel, known for her hammering kills on the court, spent about three weeks before her senior season volunteering at orphanages in South Africa.

“It was a really cool and unique experience,” said Godwin, one of three Sentinel captains. “Those kids, they are filled with so much joy, and they just love having anybody give them attention. So it was really fun to just go there and have fun with them.”

The trip, organized by ZooTown Church, allowed Godwin to gain a different perspective on life. Her departure from continuously being around volleyball got the Griz commit more eager for her senior season and the tall task of Sentinel defending it Class AA state championship.

Godwin had never been outside the country until her 16-hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. So the trip to poverty-stricken areas from June 22 to July 8 gave her a greater appreciation for what she has back home.

“Living conditions were pretty poor,” Godwin said. “We would go to places that poverty levels are so high there and you are walking down the street and it just has trash everywhere and the houses are built out of tin shacks. Kids are just running around everywhere; no supervision.

"It was really different, but it was really cool to get that different kind of perspective of what it’s like in other parts of the (world).”

Sentinel coach Erin Keffeler described Godwin as a selfless, humble person, so she wasn’t entirely surprised that Godwin would go on such a trip. And for someone like Godwin — the 2016-17 Gatorade Montana Volleyball Player of the Year who plays or trains for volleyball nearly year round — Keffeler knew the trip could provide some much-needed time away from the sport.

“I thought that was really important for her to know that there’s a balance between life and volleyball and there’s a bigger picture out there of things in the world that need our love and attention,” Keffeler said. “She took time off from volleyball to make sure something else in life got her attention. I thought that was a great choice to stay balanced and grounded.”

Godwin didn’t completely abandon volleyball on her trip. She and others in the group brought along volleyballs and tried to teach the kids at the orphanages how to play, she said.

“We tried, but they kind of just liked to throw it and kick it with whatever limbs they could,” Godwin said. “They knew what (volleyball) was. They just weren’t really familiar with the fundamentals of the sport.”

Soccer is the king sport in South Africa. That’s what kids at the orphanages wanted to play, Godwin said, so that’s what she played.

“I got to take a quick break from volleyball and freshen up on my soccer skills,” she said. “It was kind of nice just to take a break and focus on something different. I was definitely ready to jump into volleyball as soon as I got back.”

Doubling down

Back on the court, Godwin and the Spartans are looking to defend their Class AA state championship. They return four first-team or second-team all-state players, including Jordyn Schweyen, who is taking on setter duties after the graduation of Chelsea Bone.

They won the title last fall with a 26-0 record for their first championship since 1988.

But after that unblemished campaign, they’ve already dropped a match this year. It was their first loss since they lost in the 2015 state title game to Bozeman

Godwin, Keffeler and senior Kylie Frohlich all said going undefeated this season was never the team’s main goal.

“It was an underlying goal to go undefeated,” Keffeler said. “It wasn’t necessarily a big goal but a secret team goal, sort of. … It was special last year to go 26-0. It’s a lot of pressure to hold, so I’d maybe rather lose one early and not have that pressure keep building on our season.

"I think that’s something that will make us better in the end.”

The loss came this past Saturday when they fell 2-0 to Billings Senior, the team Sentinel beat in last year's state title game, at the Electric City Invitational championship in Great Falls. Sentinel dropped the first match 25-13 and kept the second one closer but fell 25-20.

The Spartans were without a couple key players, including Godwin, because of injury or illness, but there were no excuses around the team. Players like seniors Cassie North and Jordyn Schweyen and sophomore Sheridan Schweyen stepped up, Keffeler said.

“We could have played some (players who sat) and come out ahead,” Keffeler said. “I didn’t want to risk it. That wasn’t the ultimate thing. We sacrificed that to make sure that we are healthy when it counts. I think that’s more important than that undefeated title.”

Godwin returned to the court on Tuesday to help guide Sentinel to a 3-1 win over crosstown rival Missoula Hellgate. She led the team with 12 digs, five aces, and she added 14 kills.

“It’s been a fun season,” Godwin said. “Yeah, even with the loss. We’re able to recover. We can take it.

“Senior is one of our biggest competitors, so they gave us everything they had. By the time we see them at state we’ll be ready to take them on again.”

Excited for the future

Godwin’s future plans have been set since the spring. She committed to play college volleyball with the Montana Grizzlies starting in the fall of 2018.

There, she’ll be playing for head coach Allison Lawrence. It’ll be a familiar situation since Godwin played for Lawrence at the Montana Volleyball Academy when she started volleyball at 11 years old.

Lawrence, the first-year head coach of the Griz, has Montana off to a 5-5 start as of Wednesday. Their 5-3 record through their first eight games matched the win total from 2016, when the team went 5-21.

While Godwin is focusing on herself and her team through the season, she’s been getting updates on Montana’s success under Lawrence, and she likes what she’s seen.

“I’m super excited to play for the Griz,” she said of how she feels about her commitment five months after making it. “I think it’s great I got my decision in before my senior year so I don’t have as much pressure about where I’m going to go to school. Not having to worry about that, I can just focus on my last year here at Sentinel.”

Having played only a handful of matches, it may take a while to see if Godwin can improve upon her 287 kills, 192 digs, 40 service aces, and .457 kill percentage from last season.

Godwin has taken on more of a leadership role as a senior, Keffeler said, leading more by example than as a vocal leader. It’s reflective of the whole team, as Keffeler said this year’s group is one of the quieter she’s had at Sentinel.

Although it was clear Godwin was a standout player from a young age, Keffeler said, she’s remained a humble, passionate team-player throughout the years.

“Last year she was nominated to be the Gatorade Player of the Year, and she didn’t even want the team to know that until later after she found out,” Keffeler said. “She doesn’t want to stand out that way.”

She’d rather just travel 16 hours to South Africa and help some kids she’s never met before.

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