MISSOULA — The Missoula Big Sky volleyball team stood alone on the court Tuesday at Hellgate's gym with a two-set lead. The Missoula Hellgate dance team performed before the third set and Knights coach Matty Hancock used the added intermission to fire up his squad in the hallway.
It nearly worked.
Hellgate played inspired volleyball over the next two sets, forcing a winner-take-all fifth set, but Big Sky focused up for the final points and won the match, 25-22, 25-21, 21-25, 22-25, 15-9. It was the Eagles' second crosstown win against the Knights this season, dating back to an equally entertaining four-set win for Big Sky last month.
"We were able to tough it out and figure things out today which is what we really just need to do," Big Sky coach Amy Roberts said.
Despite the Eagles' two-set lead, though, each game was back and forth. It was fitting that the match went five.
In Set 2, the Knights led early 6-2 after a Kate Koenig kill — one of her game-high 27 on the night.
But the Eagles battled back to take an 11-10 set on a Brooke Kearns kill from a twisting back-set from junior Katie Rolle. It was a play Rolle used to perfection throughout the night with both Kearns and Big Sky's other middle blocker Lizzie Clawson.
Big Sky didn't trail again in the set, and Hancock wanted to have a word with his Knights.
"I was just like, 'This is do or die, you gotta let it all hang out right now,' and reminded them of these seniors," coach Hancock said, pointing out the seven 2018 graduates on the squad. "...I think that's kind of the key thing Kate (Koenig's) been reminding them of... We play in a 30x30 court with six people — there has to be some continuity."
And Koenig led the charge after the pep talk.
Hellgate never trailed in Set 3, although Big Sky did force a 20-20 tie. Hellgate's outside hitter took over from there.
Koenig finished three of the remaining five points off herself, including a devastating kill to go ahead 22-20 that forced coach Roberts to call a timeout.
Another Koenig kill landed, though, and Violet Hughes added an ace in the run before a Big Sky error ended the set and kept the Knights alive.
"Oh man, she definitely made out defense work tonight," Big Sky's Sam Tiede, who led the Eagles with 13 digs, said of Koenig. "She was hitting lines, she was hitting cross, she found a lot of open shots.
"Our coverage lacked a little bit, and she got the best of us a few times."
In Set 4 the Eagles led 16-8 before the Knights again put Big Sky on its heels. The Knights rattled off eight straight points before Kearns' kill slowed the run at 17-16, but the Knights couldn't be stopped in the fourth set. Koenig finished the final six points with an ace and kill, while junior libero Liza Littig added the winning and exclamation point with an ace to force Game 5.
This time, it was Big Sky's Roberts who needed a talk with her team.
The Eagles, and particularly senior Grace Lowder, responded. Lowder, who switched hitting positions to takeover for the injured Payton Hudson, had six kills in the final frame, including the game-winning point. Coach Roberts sat her down before the fifth set to talk to her.
"When she came out (in Set 4), she knew exactly why, and the thing about Grace, she's very competitive," coach Roberts said of Lowder, who finished with 14 kills, one off Tiede's team-high total of 15. "As soon as we lost that fourth set she heard from me that she'd be going back in and I felt confident she would go in there and take some good swings in the fifth."
Koenig and Co. was ruthless all night, and Hellgate freshman Gillian Sherrill saw crunch-time action in the fifth set and responded with two kills.
But it was Big Sky's night.
The Eagles, who improved to 5-4 in the Western AA (10-5 overall) and are in third place in the conference, take on Missoula Sentinel (14-1, 8-0) in another crosstown matchup next Tuesday. Hellgate (4-10, 1-6) also has Sentinel. The Knights host Thursday.