Rocky's Holland Fergurson

Holland Fergurson of the Rocky Mountain College volleyball team celebrates a point during a recent match. Fergurson leads the Battlin' Bears in digs this season.

BRONTE WITTPENN, Gazette staff

BILLINGS — Laurie Kelly is not afraid to schedule hard.

Every season, her Rocky Mountain College volleyball team plays some of the top teams in the nation. And for almost a decade, the Battlin’ Bears have been part of that same group.

But Kelly has a more important reason for testing her players against the best.

“It’s not how many wins you have,” she explained of NAIA volleyball. “It’s who you beat that gets us into the national tournament. It’s about quality wins.”

The Battlin’ Bears (15-6) take a break from Frontier Conference play this weekend to play in the Grand View Tournament in Des Moines, Iowa.

Rocky will play host Grand View, along with Peru State, William Woods and Viterbo. Viterbo is ranked No. 1 in the latest NAIA Top 25 poll, while Grand View is No. 11. Rocky is ranked 26th and William Woods No. 29.

It’s the second time this season the Battlin’ Bears have played the No. 1 team in the country. Rocky played defending national champion and early No. 1 Hastings College in the third match of the season, falling in five sets.

“It’s a crap shoot,” Kelly acknowledged of the danger of playing tough teams. “But you have to think you will be good later in the season. You want to play the best.”

Rocky’s only conference loss is to 15th-ranked Montana Tech. The Battlin’ Bears have swept every other league match.

Kelly saw the seeds of this year start to grow a year ago as a young Rocky team endured a roller-coaster 14-17 season.

But the difficult schedule did not change.

“Every time we lost to a ranked team, we asked, ‘What did we learn from that?’ “ Kelly said. “The lessons learned from last year are carrying over into this season.”

The additions of setter Natalie Hilderman and outside hitter Olivia L’Ami were the missing pieces and the roster was bolstered by the return of middle hitter Sydney Matheny who had missed last season with a shoulder injury.

“Sydney is the real deal,” Kelly said of the senior. “She can jump and she knows where she is hitting.”

The Battlin’ Bears have four players – L’Ami, Daniella Russell, Hailey Copinga and Matheny – with 152 kills or more. Tess Hellerud has 98. Copinga, along with Annie Cooke, was one of the two setters last season.

“We have no weak spots along our front row,” said Kelly. “When we face teams who shut down the middle, we can go outside. And when teams focus on the outside, we can go in the middle. They’re no taller than 5-9 but they’re all very athletic and can jump out of the gym. Having older kids on the front row allows your setter to do amazing things.”

The catalyst has been Hilderman, who guided Red Lodge to back-to-back Class B state championships.

A quick learner to the speed of the collegiate game, she has 14 double-doubles (assists-digs), including the last six matches in a row.

The signing of Hilderman allowed Copinga to return to outside hitter.

“Every week, Natalie improves on the defensive end,” said Kelly. “In college, teams hit right at your setter so they can’t make plays. When teams do that, we have Hailey to make the sets. We’re never out of system. That’s one of our strengths.”

Kelly also praised the defense of Hilderman, Holland Fergurson, Krista Judisch and Ruby Kallenbach. “Not much gets past those four,” the coach added.

“They’re such a tight-knit group and that carries over on to the court. This group is older now. They take care of business. It’s been fun.”

Rocky men face test

The Battlin’ Bears men’s soccer team has a big match Friday, taking on Cascade Collegiate Conference leader Corban University in Oregon.

Rocky (10-1, 6-1), ranked No. 10 in the latest NAIA poll, is third in the standings behind Corban (10-0-2, 6-0-1) and Southern Oregon (7-6, 7-1).

The Rocky women (8-2, 4-1) are second in the CCC standings and also play at Corban.

With some help from easy wins over Walla Walla (12-0) and Multnomah (7-0), the Rocky men lead the CCC in eight categories, including goals per game, assists per game, shots per game and shutouts. The Battlin’ Bears have blanked six opponents this season.

Rocky’s offense features five players – Marco Kummerle, Pablo Ferreira, Sky Swenson, Chasen Lashure and Luca Wiechers – among the top in the conference for goals per game. Jonah Gronmayer leads the CCC in assists per game and total assists. Gronmayer ranks seconds for game-winning goals.

Kummerle has six goals this season, while Lashure, Wiechers, Ferriera and Swenson each have five.

Cole Catlin, a senior keeper from Billings, is third in the CCC for goals against average.

Rocky has won the last two CCC regular-season titles, earning an automatic berth in the NAIA national tournament.

Email Joe Kusek at joe.kusek@406mtsports or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsJoe