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The Jefferson High School varsity volleyball team after defeating Broadwater in a five-set match on Oct. 8. Pictured from left to right: Grace Alexander, Dakota Edmisten, Rachel Van Blaricom, Abby Youde, Maddie Leiva and Sam Zody.  (Photo by Dawn Smartnick)

Those who played spring sports at Jefferson High School were dismayed when the season was abruptly cancelled due to COVID-19. That meant no track, no tennis and no golf as everyone was on state-mandated stay-at-home orders, school buildings were closed and teachers, students and parents struggled with remote learning. 

During the summer, students athletes waited in anticipation to hear if fall sports would begin. In August, the Montana High School Association announced that the season would proceed for football, volleyball and cross-country, despite the pandemic. There were restrictions, to be sure, but the teams would be able to practice and compete. 

For the Panthers volleyball team, it was welcome news after a summer of uncertainty. This is the story of that season, beginning with the news that it would be happening, as told by some members of the varsity team. 

Sam Zody: I  was very relieved and I was excited as it was my senior year and I was very worried that I wasn’t going to get a season. I play tennis and I didn’t get to participate in that. 

Maddy Leiva: I was super excited because it’s the only sport I do at the school and that I was going to have a senior season. 

Grace Alexander: I thought I wasn’t going to get my senior volleyball season and I was very excited that I was going to get some sort of season. It had been very uncertain. Since we had open gyms, I figured we would have a season, but I didn’t know what it would look like or if it would be different from past years. 

Hope Dobyns: I was overjoyed when I first heard about it because there was so much uncertainty. We were fortunate to have a season, a great season with my team.

Rachel Van Blaricom: I thought that by the time summer was over, we’d have something figured out for volleyball. It would have given us enough time, the school board to figure out what they wanted to do, the health board.  I was going to do track, but we had five practices and then it was cancelled. That was kind of sad.

Abby Youde: It was definitely a big relief. It was hard to watch all of my friends and teammates who do track, golf or tennis have to go through that and how difficult it really was. Having it limited was disappointing, but I was grateful to have a season, and as cases started to rise, being able to keep a season. 

Coach Mike Majors: Very thankful to be able to play. Our girls love volleyball and love to compete.

Volleyball season was on, but it wasn’t without restrictions imposed by the pandemic. The Montana High School Association issued a set of guidelines for each fall sport. For volleyball, the new rules included sanitizing the ball throughout a match, maintaining social distancing on the court, masks being allowed, teams not switching benches between matches and team celebrations could not  involve touching. 

 

Hope Dobyns: It was strange to hear about it at first, we were all really confused. But we were just glad we had a game to play at. We adapted to it and navigated those different things and we adjusted to it and saw other teams and had fans come to our games. Once we did adjust, it was ok.  

Rachel Van Blaricom: I know it frustrated a lot of girls to have to wear the mask because it seems kind of unnecessary, but if it keeps us in the sport I was completely fine with it. I just wanted to be able to play. It can seem tedious at times, but we did get through the season.  It was worth it.

Maddy Leiva: It was kind of annoying at first because we have to wear masks on the bench and social distance and all that, but we did adapt to it pretty quickly. Sometimes we just forgot, but we did fine and we played great.

The first thing to be cut in the season was tournaments, and that decision came from the state level. Schedules changed a few times as the season was adjusted to reflect the new pandemic reality. For the players, it meant losing a key piece of the volleyball experience. 

Grace Alexander: It didn’t really help us that we didn’t have tournaments. We usually have a pre-season tournament before conference games start. Those help and we can tell what our team is going to look like that season. Were only allowed 10 games because we played each team in the district twice. 

Rachel Van Blaricom: It will most likely affect us next year too because the girls that will play varsity next year will not have as much experience if we have had more games. For the most part, we made up for it. Coach knew that, so we did way more weight-lifting and we were in physically better shape. By the fifth game we still had legs on us and the other team you could see the decrease in their playing level. Coach also made up for it with scrimmages. The scrimmages were pretty high level scrimmages.

Abby Youde: I do think tournaments are important. It’s how we start the season and we have a home tournament as well.We missed playing teams from other districts, such as Choteau and Anaconda and is a good experience leading up to districts and divisionals. 

Coach Mike Majors:  Just playing district matches was less of a disadvantage than I thought. We did miss out on some good non-district matches that would have helped. We ended up scrimmaging more and Jefferson vs Jefferson is a pretty competitive match.

With the season already missing its usual tournaments, the team was then informed that the Jefferson County Health Officer had decided to eliminate non-conference games for county schools, which also included Whitehall. Jefferson was left playing just the five teams in its district twice — Townsend, Whitehall, Manhattan, Big Timber and Three Forks. The decision caused a good deal of controversy and was one reason given for the health officer’s contract not being renewed. 

Sam Zody: I definitely was frustrated when I found out we couldn’t have non conference games, because when we got to divisionals we didn’t have tournaments and didn’t have more competition outside our conference. If we would have gotten a look at other teams, we would have known what else we needed to work on other than the same teams over and over again. I believe the non-conference really hurt us. 

Hope Dobyns: I was not very excited when I heard the news about non conference games. It was pretty disappointing because we play teams we usually don’t get to play very often, such as going to tournaments and seeing other teams. Since we were the only county not playing non-conference games it was a disadvantage to us at divisionals.

Maddy Leiva: We were all pretty upset and our coach was upset too, because right off the bat all the other teams in our district, except for Whitehall, would get more matches before district than we got. We made sure that every match we played our best. We left our hearts out on the court in every game. 

Despite the pandemic restrictions and the loss of tournaments and non-conference games, the Panthers volleyball team earned victory over victory, ending the regular season undefeated and taking home the district championship. 

Rachel Van Blaricom: I think a lot of it was due to our coach, he really pushed us as individuals. We got quite a bit of experience, both of our starting hitters were starting hitters last year. Our libero (Grace Alexander) was trained in the position really well. 

Grace Alexander: We did so well this year because we had a lot of team chemistry. A lot of us have played together since freshman and sophomore year and we also play basketball together. I think that’s what helped us, we work so well together. 

Sam Zody: I think we had great team chemistry and we all just really wanted to do our best, have our best season and do the best we could with all this COVID stuff. We didn’t know if any game was our last, or our last practice. We were playing our hearts out, just in case. 

Abby Youde: We had a lot of grit and we didn’t give up at any point. We started the season not even losing a single set in one match. Even after we lost our first set, we always fought back against teams looking way better than us. One of our first games was Townsend, and they had a great setter, a great coach. We watched them during warmups. My dad said they looked like the better team, but we had so much grit. We just never let up. 

 

After winning the District 5B title, the Lady Panthers boarded the bus and drove the 240 or so miles to Red Lodge for the divisional tournament. In the end, the Panthers beat Forsyth, but lost to Roundup and Colstrip. The divisional defeat ended any chance of going to state, as well as the season. 

 

Abby Youde: It seemed we came out with not as much energy as we have been, we came out with our heads down. Some say it was the drive that was a disadvantage. It wasn’t clicking. Something wasn’t there. We had good team chemistry all year and stayed energetic, positive and confident. That look of confidence I wasn’t seeing it in the team. Communication wasn’t there like it usually was. Especially in that first game. The second game we had more energy and that third game we came out fired up and took Colstrip in the first match, but that same thing, a lack of energy. It didn’t look like Jefferson volleyball at that point.

Sam Zody: I believe we definitely didn’t play our best at divisionals and we were nervous to see what other competition there was. It was our first time seeing those teams and it got in our heads a bit. We had no idea what to expect and that was hard. I don’t know if we would have played the teams we did, but  It would have helped if we saw a different variety. 

Coach Mike Majors: We were fortunate we lost only one player for 14 days towards the very end of the season. Townsend and Manhattan each lost a starter during the District tournament and it affected them. Our divisionals have always been a great challenge . The southern B division is by far the best division in the state. Knowing how good the competition makes us better. Unfortunately, we just came up a little short this year. We’re hoping next year will be even better and it should with the girls that we have coming back. 

In addition to the COVID-19 game restrictions, the loss of tournaments and non-conference games, there was also a limit on the number of spectators. As a result, there wasn’t a large student cheering section, no band energizing the team with motivating music. Still, the girls cherished the support that was available.

 

Grace Alexander: The lack of spectators was hard and so was the lack of a pep band at home games. Sometimes it was like the energy wasn’t there, but it was nice that we had the spectators we did,  as they brought some energy. We had some scrimmages without spectators and there was no energy. I’m glad we were allowed some spectators.

Hope Dobyns: The limits on spectators was probably one of the largest problems we had, but we got through it and persevered and it made us more grateful for the family and fans that were there. We’re just so thankful for that. I couldn’t have gotten through the seasons without the support of my parents and my coaches. Emotionally, physically and every game we played. It was a huge compliment to us and humbling to see the support from Boulder and everyone who supported our team. 

Maddy Leiva: My big motivator was my mom, (Jennifer Hoover) as she was deployed overseas. She would stay up so she could watch the live streams. She would text and tell us how well we did. She would wake up just to watch the live stream on time. She maybe missed one game. The time difference was almost completely opposite - a 22 hour difference or something like that. Our coaches really help us out a lot too. 

Abby Youde: A team tradition is a team dinner at least once a week at the school. But due to COVID, we couldn’t do it at the school so a few different nights some parents opened their houses for the whole team. The parents were really incredible, there was no hesitation to be flexible and make sure everyone who needed tickets, got tickets. The communication was good and no one really hesitated to adapt to make it better. 

 

Some players earned special recognition. Grace Alexander was voted All-State and All-Conference, having earned more votes than any other player being considered. Rachel Van Blaricom was named Second Team All-Conference and Dakota Edmisten was named First Team All-Conference. 

 

Grace Alexander: It was very exciting news because last year I didn’t even get all All-Conference. It was a goal I was going for this year and It was pretty amazing. Just knowing it was senior season and I had to give it my all and put in extra time and giving my all at every single game. 

Abby Youde: We wouldn’t have gotten to where we did without Grace. She’s amazing and she’s ridiculously humble. 

Rachel Van Blaricom: What I will remember most is how close I became with Dakota Edmisten. She helped me so much this year, she just pushed me to be one of the better volleyball players in our district. I’m Second Team All-Conference, that’s pretty awesome.

 

Playing volleyball during a pandemic was unique and made for some special memories, especially since it was a winning season, with the team finishing with a 13-2 record. 

 

Abby Youde: You definitely get some great memories from those tight matches, like the one home game against Townsend when it went to five. But in the end, it will be the relationships I formed with my teammates. People I might normally not interact with, plus a lot of non-athletic skills formed I will stay with me for a long time, such as encouraging people, knowing the value of a team. Some skills I learned, like the moment when you’re not getting the playing time you want, but you stay encouraging to your team, that what’s important is your team. I value that for sure. 

Sam Zody: The fact that we were undefeated in our regular season and we got first place at districts. It was pretty awesome to be part of that experience. 

Maddy Leiva: I will remember just the awesome teammates I was able to play with. We communicated really well. Our goal was to become a family and we easily reached that goal by the end of the season. We cared for each other outside of volleyball.  

Hope Dobyns: I think first off how amazing it was to go undefeated. It’s just a team that I’ve never had before, that family, we’ve just grown so much closer and I will never forget the laughs, the team dinners, the post game celebrations, they will definitely stick with me in my life. Coming to Boulder was scary at first, but being able to connect with people and have close friendships built even through adversity is so rare and I appreciate it on my part. 

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