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There is a good pass during practice and what Lisa Axel thinks is a good pass during practice.

Same with the sets, spikes and anything else related to volleyball.

While the players and even the assistant coaches might be in agreement on what is acceptable and what is not, Axel is the final arbiter.

“We put them through drills until we get a perfect rep,’’ said the first-year head coach for Montana State Billings. “I decide what a good pass is. We like to put them in pressure situations during drills. To make it more intense.”

That attention to detail is just a small part of the many changes that Axel is bringing to a program that has had four coaches since the end of the 2006 season. Along with drills done to her satisfaction, Axel has installed new defensive and offensive systems.

After opening the season 0-4 in Hawaii, including a loss to nationally ranked Sonoma State — “The players were disappointed, but we had to tell them we’re playing a tough preseason schedule,’’ Axel said — MSUB got its payoff for the early hard work last weekend in Colorado.

After dropping the first match to host Colorado State-Pueblo, the Yellowjackets reeled off three victories. The first win of the 2012 season — and first for Axel as a head coach — was a hard-fought five-set tussle against Adams State.

“Exciting,’’ said Axel, speaking for herself and the team. “It was a huge confidence booster. And it was nice to come against a former conference foe.”

Before taking over MSUB in the spring, Axel spent six seasons as an assistant coach with Metro State in Denver.

The Yellowjackets closed the tournament with sweeps of Eastern New Mexico University and the University of New Haven.

“These players, they don’t ever seem to get rattled,’’ Axel said. “They sometimes have a goofy energy. We found out we need that energy, we need to talk, every time we play.”

MSUB plays with a youthful enthusiasm because, well, the Yellowjackets are a young team. Jody Lutz and Morgan Moss are seniors on a roster dominated by underclassmen.

“We’re definitely very young,’’ said the coach.

MSUB’s top three hitters — Monica Grimsrud, Krista Norris, Chelsey Walter — are sophomores, while junior Erin Compton leads the team in digs. Lutz has the most blocks, followed by junior Taylor Adams and Grimsrud.

And running the new show is freshman Kyndal Williams, less than a year removed from guiding Helena High to back-to-back Class AA state championships.

“It’s exciting to see them get better,” Axel said. “From the first match to our last match, we’ve improved so much.

“Kyndal’s learning curve has been huge. She’s been running our offense very well. She’s putting her teammates in good situations.”

And because MSUB is a young program in transition preparing for the talent-laden Great Northwest Athletic Conference, Axel is keeping team goals simple.

“We just want continual improvement,’’ she said. “When we had our two weeks of practice in the spring, I was pretty pleased how athletic they were. And their willingness to work hard.

“Our focus is not about wins and losses right now. Our goal is to get better every time we step on the court.”


High School Sports, Rodeo Reporter

Sports writer for The Billings Gazette.