BOZEMAN — It might not have been a gold trophy Florence brought home from the Class B state volleyball tournament Saturday afternoon, but silver never seemed so good.
Despite falling in the tournament's first game at the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse way back on Thursday, the Falcons battled back through the loser-out bracket and put themselves in the title game for the first time in program history.
"It felt really good because, one, we made history, and two, well, we didn't get third which was kind of the Florence legacy," said sophomore outside hitter Sarah Hopcroft, who led the team in kills both matches on Saturday. "We just really wanted to play for one another. We knew this was our seniors' last chance. We all just played with heart."
They got there with yet another five-set win against Joliet in the loser-takes-third semifinal. It was Florence's third five-set match of the tournament.
"It was a lot, (but) you have to maintain for your players," second-year coach Christy Duchien said after the bus ride back to Florence. A firetruck escorted them home, illustrating what even the appearance in a title game meant to the community. "... (But) when we got to that fifth set and we’d get up a couple points, my emotions started welling up ...
"You go, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this.’"
They did. Florence bested Joliet, 25-18, 20-25, 16-25, 25-21, 15-11, to reach the title game. It hardly mattered they fell in straight sets to Southern B powerhouse Huntley Project, 25-17, 25-22, 25-20.
Florence had won four loser-out matches to get there. It was an incredible accomplishment all its own.
"These girls, after losing right away to Boulder, we had to take that long path all the way around," Duchien said. "...The passion they had and drive they had to perform was outstanding ... I’m humbled with how the girls just bought into it."
The Falcons crashed the Southern B party despite trailing 12-10 in the final set. They reeled off five consecutive points for the win.
Hopcroft had 19 kills and Shannon Byrne had 18 for Florence in the loser-out semifinal. Hudsyn Doty-DiBrito had 23 digs and setter Shay Waldbillig had 50 assists.
Joliet, with only two seniors, was led by freshman Makenna Bushman’s 19 kills. Vanessa Nowak added 16 and Shayla Webber chipped in 10. Webber also had 21 assists and 22 digs, and Joelle Luoma had 25 assists and 21 digs. Skyler Wright, also a freshman, had 20 digs and two aces.
As for the champions, Huntley Project (33-0) finished unbeaten for the third time program history, joining the 2003 and 2004 teams. It is the Red Devils' 10th state championship, the most for Class B and tied for second-most for any class. Bridger has won 10 Class C titles and Billings Senior 12 in Class AA.
Huntley didn't drop a set in four matches, meaning they played just 12 total games. Florence, which would have had to beat the Red Devils in two matches to claim the championship, reached that threshold midway through Day 2.
“We came out focused for every match,” said Huntley Project coach Iona Stookey, the state’s winningest volleyball coach. “Florence is a great team. They’re so scrappy. I was nervous. They were the only team we hadn’t played."
In the end, though, it was yet another championship for the Southern B. A team from that conference has won the last 12 state championships.