Laurie Kelly will be the first to tell you this year’s team has tested her patience. She’s questioned herself.
Losing is far from the norm for Rocky Mountain College’s volleyball team. Losses have piled up. It’s been hard on everyone. Kelly, perhaps, has taken it harder than anyone.
After seeing her team win a couple key Frontier Conference matches this weekend, Kelly couldn’t help but smile. Her patience is starting to pay off. Winning is returning to Rocky.
The Battlin’ Bears beat Montana Tech in four games Saturday afternoon, winning 25-23, 18-25, 25-17, 25-22 at the Fortin Center.
It followed up an impressive sweep Friday night of Lewis-Clark State, which came into that match ranked 25th in the country and in first place in the conference.
“To me, I’ve coached, what, 36 years? This might be the most rewarding right now,” Kelly said after the win over Tech. “With a young team, every week is so rewarding. I see their growth every week … (and) this weekend was amazing.”
Rocky is the two-time defending conference champions and has reached the NAIA national tournament the past three seasons.
That success, however, has left some holes. The program has seen 15 players graduate the past two seasons, leaving a young team to try to carry on the tradition.
The Battlin’ Bears lost their first five matches this season, won three and lost another five in row.
They came into this weekend having dropped seven of their past eight matches. The lone win came in four games against crosstown rival and one-win Montana State Billings.
Things seemed different this weekend. Winning certainly was different.
“We stuck together as a team through all the losses at the beginning of the season,” said Tess Hellerud, a junior from Red Lodge and one of the few returning players this season. “We’re sticking together. It would have been easy to throw our hands up and say we give up on this season, but we didn’t. We never gave up on ourselves.”
Hellerud is one of two juniors seeing significant action this season. The rest are freshmen and sophomores.
Kelly, in her 11th season at Rocky, jumps off her chair often during the matches, using every opportunity she can to teach.
“Usually you have four starters and try to work with the other two out there,” Kelly said. “We’re working with all six. We have new setters, new middles, new outsides, new everything.
“To get these two big wins this weekend, against two teams ranked all year, we’re right where we want to be. I’m so proud of them for how they’re competing.”
Hailey Copinga, a sophomore from Billings Skyview, has been a hitter most of her volleyball career. She’s been moved to setter for the Battlin’ Bears, sharing that spot with freshman Annie Cooke of Joliet.
Holland Ferguson, a libero, is the other junior, while freshmen and sophomores up and down the roster have contributed.
Sophomore Savannah Smith led the team with 13 kills in the victory over Tech, while Hellerud and sophomore Kaylie Hadley, of Baker, each had nine kills.
Andraya Hawks had six kills and Naomi Bad Bear, of Billings Senior, had four. The two freshmen were in on key points and big blocks as the Battlin’ Bears won the third and fourth games.
“Everyone finally showed up,” said Copinga, who had a team-high 24 assists and added 12 digs and seven kills. “We finally had our six players out there doing their part. Everyone was excited to play and we played with a lot of energy. We had some momentum and we used it.”
Now the secret For Rocky is to keep that momentum going. They will host Montana Western and No. 19 Carroll next weekend.
With their two wins this weekend, the Battlin’ Bears have made it known they’re not giving up their spot atop the conference easily. They’re playing loose and getting better. It’s just as Kelly had hoped.
“They’re playing fearless,” she said. “This is what we’ve talked about. ‘What are you afraid of?’ We have nothing to lose. We’re finally in a position with nothing to lose.
"I’ve told them, ‘You’re young and you can just go out there and play as hard as you can. Nobody is going to judge you.”