Rocky fall sports teams prepare for national stage

2013-11-21T22:00:00Z 2013-11-22T01:35:06Z Rocky fall sports teams prepare for national stageBy BILL BIGHAUS The Billings Gazette

Rocky Mountain College’s No. 10-ranked football team isn’t the only squad on campus preparing this week to make a championship run.

In addition to the football game Saturday afternoon against No. 5 Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, the Battlin’ Bears will also be appearing on the national stage that day in women’s volleyball, men’s soccer and men’s cross country.

Rocky’s volleyball team, ranked 25th nationally in the NAIA, will be in Caldwell, Idaho, Saturday night playing No. 21-ranked College of Idaho, 18-9, in a play-in match for next month’s 24-team national tournament in Iowa.

Meantime, the men’s soccer team will be in Hastings, Neb., that evening tackling No. 14-ranked Hastings College, 18-3, for the right to move on to the Sweet 16 of the national tournament in Montgomery, Ala.

That same day, at Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence, Kan., Rocky will be running in the national cross country championships with its 21st-ranked men’s team and two individual qualifiers for the women.

Rocky’s volleyball team, 24-6 overall, automatically qualified for nationals by winning last weekend’s Frontier Conference

tournament in Great Falls. It’s the Bears’ third trip to nationals in four years.

Rocky has won 15 of its last 18 matches, and coach Laurie Kelly said her young team — with no seniors — is capable of making more noise in the postseason.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I look at our team we sent to nationals a few years ago and this team … I’d put them up against each other right away. They’re young and competitive and want it. That’s all you can ask.”

The Bears are tied for first nationally in the NAIA with their average of 2.9 blocks per set and are also tied for third with 19.6 digs per set.

“If our block stays strong and we keep up with our defense, I think we’ll be a pretty tough team to beat,” said outside hitter Kylie Nielsen, a redshirt freshman from Billings West.

“Our team is playing the best volleyball they’ve played all year,” Kelly said. “They were relentless (in the title match against Montana State Northern). They just went after everything. We had 116 digs in three sets. Nothing hit the floor.

“I was really proud of our defense — and our defense has been there all year.”

♦ ♦ ♦

The Rocky men’s soccer program is in just its fifth year of existence and is competing at nationals for the second consecutive year. The Bears, who are 14-3-1, qualified this fall by winning the recent Unaffiliated Conference Group Tournament, which they hosted.

Rocky is 0-1 at nationals, and this time around they face a Hastings team that spent a couple of weeks in September at No. 1 in the NAIA’s Top 25. The Broncos were also 2010 national champions and 2011 national runner-up.

“They’re a good program, but I believe in this team and I believe that we have the capacity to go far,” senior goalie Joachim Soderstrom said of the Bears.

“We’re very organized,” he added. “That’s probably our strength. Then there’s the work ethic. We’re a hard-working team. I think we’re solid overall. We don’t have any weaknesses.”

Rocky coach Richard Duffy said he received a scouting report on Hastings from the University of Great Falls, which lost to the Broncos 1-0 in Nebraska in September.

“They’re very athletic and very physical,” Duffy said of Hastings. “I think it’s going to be a battle. Both teams are going to be tackling hard and working hard, but they’re definitely a team we match up pretty well with.”

♦ ♦ ♦

The Rocky men’s cross country team earned an at-large berth in the 32-team field at nationals by finishing second at the Frontier meet and being ranked 21st nationally.

It is the first time since the program started seven years ago that the Bears have qualified a team for nationals.

“What we would like to do is, obviously, place higher than we’re ranked going in,” coach Alan King said. “That’s the goal.”

Senior Noah Kiprono leads the men, who have improved their team time by over 15 minutes since the season started.

This will be Kiprono’s third trip to nationals in cross country, but five of Rocky’s seven runners for the men are underclassmen.

“If you look at the team, we don’t have world-beaters,” King said. “You have teams that have pretty darn close to Olympians on their teams. My team is made up of a bunch of scrappy young kids that work hard and want to see how far they can get. To be able to do that is pretty impressive.”

Rocky seniors Ana Richter and Megan Breeding will be competing as individuals at nationals.

Richter finished 42nd at nationals last year — which is the highest finish by a Rocky woman since the program has been revived.

“I think Ana could be an All-American, which is top 30,” King said.

This will be Richter’s third trip to nationals in cross country, but for Breeding, who fought off bronchitis to run at the conference meet, this will be her first visit.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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