BILLINGS – Maybe, sort of, just a little bit, Belgrade volleyball coach Jade Schmidt wishes the school was already playing in the Class AA classification.

But that’s still a year away for the Panthers, who have one season left at the Class A level before moving up a notch in all sports for the 2019-20 school year. And while Belgrade enters the 2018 volleyball season as one of the favorites in Class A, Schmidt thinks this year’s veteran team would have provided a perfect transition to AA. She also thinks this year’s team would be able to hold its own in terms of wins and losses.

Given that two-time defending Class AA champion Missoula Sentinel and two-time runner-up Billings Senior graduated most of their rosters, there could be a bit of a vacuum in the AA ranks this season. It’s only natural for Schmidt, who will lose seven seniors from this year's graduating class, to think “what if.”

“I think the team we have right now would be competitive in AA, so it would be nice,” Schmidt said Thursday, the eve of the opening of Belgrade’s season, which begins Friday with the Eastern/Central A Tip Off in Havre. “I think they would have been happy to meet that challenge head on. That’s just the kind of kids they are.”

The Panthers were Class A runners-up to Billings Central last year, but return the majority of their roster, including all-stater and school career kills leader Bailey Christensen. Christensen is college bound in volleyball having signed with the University of Providence in Great Falls. 

Belgrade also brings back all-state libero Taylor Christensen (Bailey’s sister), who, only a junior, is already receiving looks from NCAA Division I schools, according to Schmidt. Another senior, setter Jaiden Blakely, is an all-state player, as well.

This season will provide the Panthers’ younger varsity players with plenty of AA experience. The Panthers’ schedule includes matches against AA schools Butte and Missoula Hellgate. Belgrade is also playing in the two-day Border Wars event that features all three AA Billings schools and Bozeman. 

Almost as important as the schedule, the impending move to AA hasn’t put a damper on participation. Schmidt said 65 players came out for volleyball this season, which is about 10 more than she’s ever had in her seven seasons at Belgrade.

Still, Schmdit isn’t looking too far ahead. Every game, every practice is focused on this year’s team. Off the court is when she allows herself time to contemplate the future of her program, but that’s something she does all the time, anyway, she said.

Belgrade’s senior group has finished sixth, third and second at the state tournament. Does that mean the natural progression in their final year is …

Schmidt cuts off the question before it can be completed.

“The natural progression,” she said, “is to get better.”

That said, this year’s Panthers are resisting the goal of championship or bust. Schmidt said she wants her seven seniors to play without self-imposed pressure, without expectations, to play together, and “go out having fun.”

"I think that as a program it's going to be important that we maintain our competitiveness within the division we are playing in order to continue to build," said Schmidt, who starred at Helena High and the University of Montana. "It's really tough to build a program when you're at the bottom of the barrel. It's a lot easier when you're successful to continue to build.

“The state of the program is ready numbers-wise for the AA move. We just have to be ready competitive-wise. I think there are a large enough group of kids who are ready to meet that. I think they might be a little nervous about that now, but by the time we get there, they’ll be ready.”

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

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