BOZEMAN — Though Billings Central wound up clutching the second-place trophy at the Class A state volleyball tournament last season, the Rams had to take a somewhat circuitous route to get there after being unable to escape the first day without a loss.

This year is a different story. The Rams capped their first day at state Thursday with a 25-19, 25-13, 25-18 win over Libby at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, sending Billings Central into Friday’s undefeated semifinal.

They’ll meet the Belgrade Panthers, who survived a five-set victory over Corvallis in the final match of the day.

The Rams and Panthers have met four times this season. The Rams have won all four.

“I don’t think there’s any mental block,” said Belgrade coach Jade Schmidt. “I really don’t. These girls want it. I think our biggest challenge is going to be not wanting it too much, keeping it in perspective, playing one point at a time and working for everything.”

From Central’s perspective, each previous match with the Panthers has been different. It’s only been the outcome that’s been the same. And coach Kylie Reitz said she doesn’t want her Rams to be complacent.

“We’ll definitely be guarding against that quite a bit,” she said. “Every time we play them we’ve had a different kid step up, it’s been a different person every time. So it’s always interesting to see who that’s going to be. We’ll see.”

Friday’s match is set for 6 p.m. with the winner advancing to the championship round.

Belgrade 3, Corvallis 2

Only a junior, Belgrade’s Bailey Christensen is already the school’s career leader in kills, starting the tournament with more than 1,200.

She had a school single-match record 30 more kills against the Blue Devils, including four of the Belgrade’s final five points as the Panthers rallied from a one-set deficit in the 21-25, 25-20, 23-25, 25-10, 15-10 win that sent them to the semifinal.

Jaiden Blakely had 53 assists and Taylor Christensen added 24 digs for the Panthers.

“Honestly, outside of Billings Central, those are the first two sets we’ve lost to a Class A opponent all year,” Schmidt said. “So I was really proud of the way the girls responded and fought through some adversity.”

Maureen Jessop had 15 kills, four blocks and 15 digs, and Kate Hurlburt finished with 36 assists and 21 digs for the Blue Devils. Corvallis begins play Friday in the 4 p.m. loser-out match.

Billings Central 3, Libby 0

Sydney Hawbaker had 14 kills and Olivia Moten-Schell had 11 in a victory that needed no timeouts from Reitz. Central swept Stevensville earlier in the day.

“I just didn’t think that we had connected like we were capable in that first match, offensively,” Reitz said. “We had a great defensive effort and we passed really well, so that allowed us to be successful.

“I told them before the (Libby) match I feel so lucky that I get to coach them because I have so much faith in their competitiveness. Libby has a lot of height, but I just know when we see a challenge, they’re just going to go after it. They get better when they see that challenge.”

Jayden Winslow had eight kills and 11 digs to lead Libby. The Loggers will begin play in Friday’s 2 p.m. loser-out round.

Corvallis 3, Glendive 0

Glendive’s first foray since 2005 to state turned into a philosophical lesson.

Corvallis, a state-tournament regular the past several seasons, topped the Red Devils 25-17, 25-12, 25-8 behind 10 kills from Hannah Hutch and a team total 15 aces.

“You know, this is kind of our philosophy,” Glendive coach Tiffaney Egan said, “we either win or we learn. We’re going to walk away and we’re going to learn a lot.”

Egan is in her second season with the Red Devils. And while the program has returned to state after a long absence, there were lessons still to be learned. How to play with pressure, how to play with nerves, among them, playing on different courts while trying to drown out the external noise, Egan said.

“We’re a young program, we’ve got a long ways to go,” Egan said. “We’ve got a lot of potential. We have a lot of strengths … they’ll be better tomorrow.”

Karsen Murphy had six kills and Thea Robson 19 digs for Glendive, which plays Whitefish at noon on Friday in a loser-out match.

Belgrade 3, Whitefish 0

It’s been a season of adversity for the Whitefish Bulldogs.

There’s been a coaching change – Jackie Fuller resigned at the beginning of the season – senior night was postponed due to a wind and lightning storm, and the school was one of those affected by the recent cyber attacks that shut down schools in western Montana for a few days.

So a 25-17, 25-15, 25-23 loss to Belgrade in the first round is just another hurdle for this group of Bulldogs to overcome.

To continue its season, Whitefish will have to win three matches on Friday, starting at noon. Addy Connelly, who was a volunteer assistant last season before ascending to the head coach position when Fuller stepped down, knows her team won’t balk at the task.

“It’s been one thing after another, it seems,” Connelly said, “but the girls have found a way to keep going. I’m proud of them for that.”

Belgrade got 13 kills and 10 digs from Bailey Christensen and 10 digs from Taylor Christensen. Cailyn Ross led Whitefish with 14 kills and Serena Hemmingson had 19 digs.

Libby 3, Lewistown 2

What started out as a back-and-forth match eventually turned in Libby’s favor, and the Loggers went on to beat Lewistown.

The teams split tight sets to open the match, and Lewistown grabbed a 2-1 lead after winning the third set. But Libby bounced back and used a 12-point run in the deciding fifth set for the 22-25, 27-25, 16-25, 25-16, 15-6 victory.

“We knew we had to win the serve and serve-receive game and in games four and five and we didn’t do that,” longtime Lewistown coach Tara Taylor said. “Plain and simple.”

Jayden Winslow had 16 kills and 19 digs, and Menki Sykes and Brooklyn Rainer 13 kills each for Libby, which had 48 kills overall. Lewistown had 49 kills, 16 from Anna Zimmer and 10 from Andrea Russell.

The Loggers advanced to another match in the afternoon. Lewistown fell into the loser-out bracket where the Golden Eagles will take on Stevensville at 10 a.m. on Friday.

Billings Central 3, Stevensville 0

As a former assistant coach at Corvallis, Stevensville head coach Yvette Larson has some experience for the chaos that is the state volleyball tournament. Her players, not so much.

The Yellowjackets opened play Thursday morning against Billings Central, and the Rams’ experience, and talent, showed in a 25-14, 25-13, 25-16 opening-round victory.

Sydney Hawbaker had 11 kills and Devin Nielsen added 27 assists, 11 digs and five aces for the Rams, who were runners-up a year ago. Mikayla Hall and Angel Richards had five kills to lead Stevensville, which is making its first appearance at state in nine years.

“We didn’t quite get settled,” said Larson, who is in her second season with Stevensville. “It’s a very new experience (for the players). It definitely didn’t look like the caliber of ball that we normally play. That’s understandable. They put a lot of pressure on themselves with what they’d like to achieve.”

Stevensville will play Lewistown in a loser-out match at 10 a.m. on Friday.

Email Mike Scherting at mike.scherting@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsSchert

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