Seem a little early for the start of the prep volleyball season?
History says it is. But history changes Friday night.
For the first time, Montana prep volleyball swings into action before the Christmas break.
It should be a good thing for the four area Western AA schools, which are gunning to knock off defending state champion Helena Capital.
"I think there are some plusses and some negatives," said veteran Hellgate coach Vicki Brown. "I know we felt rushed to try to prepare ourselves. In the same light, we get to go play and then see where we need to go."
"It's nice to start competing early," said Big Sky second-year coach April Sather. "But it's scary at the same time."
Big Sky and Hellgate were both hit hard by graduation. Sentinel and Kalispell suffered disappointing campaigns last season, but both return several starters.
Here's a team-by-team look at the Class AA teams in western Montana:
Sather, a former University of Montana volleyball and basketball player, guided Big Sky to a Western Conference title and a third-place finish at the state tournament.
Another trophy could be in the cards if the Eagles can find replacements for middle hitters Katy McGinnis, Audrey Tomsich, outside hitter Megan Powell and setter Niki Staves. McGinnis and Powell were second team all-state selections. Staves was honorable mention.
"We're looking for one distinct leader to kinda step it up, someone who can get the chemistry rolling," Sather said. "We always want to set our goals as high as we can. It's just hard to tell at this point."
Seniors Kim Schwenk (5-foot-9) and Laine Botchek (5-8) both started last year and provide the Eagles with experience on the outside. Both were all-conference a year ago.
Katrina Dahlgren, a 6-3 junior, and 5-10 sophomore Colette Phillips will start in the middle.
"Katrina has more experience," Sather said. "Both are really raw, but they are good learners and they are making good strikes at the ball."
Senior Kristen Anderson (5-10) will replace Staves as the setter.
"I think she'll step in and do a great job," Sather said. She's a good blocker and she's tall."
Hellgate lost five starters, including all-state middle hitter Libby Torma, from a team which advanced to the state tournament.
"We'll be a little inexperienced at the varsity level," said Brown, who is 339-185 in 18 years as a coach. "I'm very pleased with the enthusiasm and work ethic."
The Knights should have a solid front line. Lauren Cromwell, a 6-foot junior, and Amy Tangedahl, a 6-foot senior, were both part-time starters last season.
Junior outside hitter Hayley Barger (5-11), and senior defensive specialist/outside hitter Nancy Gorseth (5-6) also saw extensive varsity action. Senior Amanda Edlund (5-10) and junior Courtney Callahan (5-9) shore up the front line.
The Knights will also have a new setter in junior Jackie Buhl. She'll replace the tandem of Megan Monroe and Jenna Luck.
"She's a good little setter," Brown said. "She doesn't have a lot of varsity experience, but we're really looking for good things from her."
Strong defense is a trademark of Brown's squads and that should be no different this season.
"I think we're going to be pretty solid, but we're just not there yet," Brown said. "It will take some time for us to be good in that respect. We've got to know our positions and be disciplined."
The Sentinel Spartans aren't about to miss out on a second consecutive state tournament, especially when Sentinel is the site of this year's state tourney.
Four starters return from last year's 5-16 squad, including senior outside hitter Amy Flaig (5-11), who earned all-conference honors last season.
Coach Debbie Thompson will field a tall and athletic starting lineup. Senior Anna Carpenter (5-10) will start in the middle. Junior outside hitter Lindsey Egeland (5-9) and junior setter Whitney Erikkson also return.
"We're young, but we've got good athletes," Thompson said. "I've got a returning setter and outside hitter and Anna Carpenter contributed quite a bit l
ast year. We will look for Anna for leadership."
Senior Jen Driscoll (5-10), and juniors Brynn Henkel (5-11) and Tassie Souhrada (5-11) provide depth on the front line.
Kalispell endured a 1-15 season under first-year coach Maureen Boyle. Look for vast improvement though as the Bravettes lost just one starter.
Senior Sarah Ondov (6-foot) and junior Lori Benson (5-10) anchor the middle and senior outside hitters Kirtlye Lohoff (5-8) and Cecilee Barton (5-8) were solid last year.