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Seniors Shay Waldbillig (left) and Hudsyn Doty-DiBrito are usually responsible for the first two passes on a Florence team poised for its eighth straight Class B state volleyball tournament appearance Thursday. The Falcons have had a team motto of "grit," which is personified by the two girls' style of play as well as Waldbillig's comeback from a serious car crash over the summer.

TOMMY MARTINO, Missoulian

FLORENCE — Second-year Florence coach Christy Duchien said one speech from last year's Class B state tournament stood out to her, even though she wasn't the one to give it.

The pep talk came from her then-junior setter, Shay Waldbillig.

"She just really showed her desire to make the team play with heart and passion. ... She just almost got on her knees and implored the team, ‘Come on you guys,’" the coach said of Waldbillig's firey address in the fourth-place match against Thompson Falls. "At that point, I have nothing left to say.

"... Shay stepped in and she showed what her senior qualities (were) going to be for this year."

Those characteristics Waldbillig illustrated then — passion, determination, grit — have seeped into an entire Florence team as it heads to the three-day 2017 state tournament in Bozeman starting Thursday. 

The defining traits also helped Waldbillig get back to the court after a serious single-car accident over the summer.

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Waldbillig's description of the injuries she sustained illustrate the severity of the accident. She had a partially collapsed lung, bleeding in her brain, a broken jaw. She stuck out her tongue at a Tuesday volleyball practice to show the scar from where doctors had stitched it. Waldbillig had nearly bitten it off in the wreck.

"It healed pretty well, I didn’t know a tongue healed that well," Waldbillig deadpanned.

The Falcons had already been holding open gyms, and Waldbillig recalled having to sit on the sidelines, or sometimes helping with drills by tossing balls to her teammates. She was in concussion protocol until two days before the start of the season, but she cleared just in time.

After passing her physical one day before the team's first official practice, it was a full-go for the season — and an eventual Western B title defense, which Florence captured last week in Eureka.

"It gave me the attitude to work hard so I would be able to play during the season," she said. "From my car crash, there’s a lot of what-if’s that could have happened. I realized you’re not promised another day, so you have to give everything you got every time.

"I kind of turned that into my motto for volleyball, because I want to give every play as much as I can because at one point I didn’t think I’d be able to play this season."

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Duchien explained what Waldbillig's presence on the court means to the team. Not only by making it back from her injuries, but sheer ability in divvying the ball to a lethal front-line attack.

"... She learned some huge lessons and she learned the hard work and commitment it takes to overcome," Duchien said. "(Waldbillig's) hopefully trying to show her team that out on the court, too. You can be successful if you work hard."

And Florence has been outstanding.

With the Western B losing both Ronan and Libby to Class A, the Falcons were able to play in more tournaments this season. The competition level at both the Panther tournament in Boulder and the predominately Class AA Missoula County tournament last month helped drive Florence to an unbeaten conference record (13-0). 

It's the second straight year Florence has finished unbeaten among its peers, and eighth straight season the Falcons have been the top seed from the Western B at state. Still, Florence has never finished better than third place at Montana's biggest stage.

In fact, no team outside of the Southern B has won a state title since Loyola Sacred Heart in 2005.

The girls in maroon and gold think this year could be different, though. The experience helps — Florence beat Boulder once at the Panther tournament; the Falcons open with the Panthers in the state tournament's first game at 10 a.m. Florence also made its way into the champions' bracket at the MCPS tournament, despite being the only Class B school in attendance. 

But it's that grit that his this year's Florence girls dreaming of state hardware. Grit has even become the team motto.

"We have a team ball, and every game a new player will get the ball and write on the ball a word that involves grit," Waldbillig explained. "I wrote perseverance and we all have different definitions of what grit means to us, and how it can push us to a state title."

While Waldbillig sets the tone — she is the setter after all, accounting for 521 assist this season — her team's fortitude is illustrated elsewhere, too.

Take Hudsyn Doty-DiBrito, Florence's libero. The defensive specialist is the one predominately getting the first pass to Waldbilling and starting the attack. Doty-DiBrito has been nothing short of spectacular according to Duchien, despite the senior making the switch to the back row after years spent at the net.

"Just seeing what her defense was last year when she played the three positions in the back row and her defense coming off the net in the front row you knew she had a gift there," the coach said of Doty-DiBrito, who has a pass rating of 2.15 (that's good, by the way).

"Hudsyn was one of our outside hitters last year, but we have other outside hitters, one by the name of Sarah Hopcroft (in particular), coming up that we felt could (also) fill the job."

Hopcroft, a sophomore, leads Florence in total kills with 205. Junior Rilee Mangun, who had a 50-percent attack percentage at the Western B divisionals, added another 136, while fellow junior Shannon Byrne provided another 143 finishers.

And spreading the love — and passion for the game — is Waldbillig.

"(Shay) is definitely the person in the huddle that just comes out screaming, but it’s all for the good of the team and it’s just full of passion and it really gets us going," said Doty-DiBrito, who has played club volleyball with Waldbillig since fifth grade. "She just loves the sport so much and tries to encourage everybody to just give everything they have and it really helps our team."


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Notes: Along with Florence, Eureka also captured a berth from the Western B at state. The Lions, owners of the West's No. 2 seed, will play Southern No. 2 seed Three Forks at 4 p.m.

In Class AA, the defending champion Missoula Sentinel team (21-1) opens with a 10 a.m. match against Great Falls High (8-14). A rematch of last year's title game with Billings Senior (29-0), which accounts for Sentinel's only loss this season, feels inevitable. The Broncs' win against the Spartans came in a tournament-shortened match. Kalispell Glacier, last year's third-place team, draws Senior in first-round action at 2 p.m.

Class A has four Missoula-area teams at state, including Stevensville making its first state appearance since 2010. The Yellowjackets, who will play top-seeded Billings Central at 10 a.m., take the West's No. 4 seed to state.

Corvallis is the West's No. 1 seed, after coming back to beat Libby (No. 2 in the West, playing Lewistown at noon) at the divisional tournament. The Blue Devils, last won it all in 2013, accounting for the program's only state title. Corvallis opens with Glendive at 4 p.m. Whitefish, the West's No. 3 seed, takes on Belgrade at 2 p.m.

Kyle Houghtaling can be reached by email at kyle.houghtaling@missoulian.com or on Twitter @khotel

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