CORVALLIS — Tuesday night's volleyball match between Corvallis and Florence had the feel of a big-time game, even if it was just an early season nonconference bout.
For starters, the Bitterroot squads represent two of the best teams in Montana in their respective classes — the Blue Devils have brought home Class A's third-place trophy two years in a row, while the Falcons are Class B's two-time runners up. Both programs are hyper competitive. Both were near flawless at their season-opening tip-off tournaments. Florence dropped just two sets in Choteau; Corvallis went 4-0 on Day 1 of its Western A tourney before falling in a three-set title game on Day 2 last week.
Both teams have dreams of winning a state title.
So when Corvallis walked off its sweltering home court — aptly nicknamed "The Inferno" — in defeat, coach Laurie Jones treated the loss like a big deal. It didn't matter to Jones that Florence's, 18-25, 25-17, 25-19, 25-20 win ultimately won't affect either team come postseason.
"For me, it's about performance and executing what we've been practicing," Jones said. "I don't care if it's a (Class) B school, I don't care if it's a (Class) A school not in our conference, I don't care if it's a (Class) AA school, what I want from (my team) is to play their best and play cohesively and have that energy, no matter what."
Cohesion might be where Florence held some advantage on Tuesday. While both teams have a bevy of upperclassmen — the Falcons have five seniors; the Blue Devils have six — Florence coach Christy Duchien is entering her fourth year with her team.
Corvallis' Jones is in her first year at the helm of the Blue Devils, though she served as Kasey Arceniega's longtime assistant. Arceniega resigned as the Blue Devils head coach in the spring after 10 years and a 2013 state title.
"I'm stepping into big shoes and people have expectations of how we're supposed to do and I'm not above admitting part of this is me adapting to it, too," Jones said candidly Wednesday before her team's practice. "I'm into a new role, they're under new leadership. It's not just them, it's not just me. it's just a combo of all of this coming together.
"What's our identity? How are we going to move forward with this new identity? We know can do it, we know we're gonna do it, there's some just growing pains of all of this transition. ...Once things really start clicking with what we're trying to do is when we're going to be more deadly."
And in Set 1, Jones' Blue Devils looked every part the state contender they're expected to be.
So did Florence.
The Blue Devils came out with the energy Jones wanted to see and built a 6-2 lead that forced A Florence timeout. The Falcons twice closed its deficit to one point, 12-11 on a Halle Christopherson ace and at 15-14 after a long rally, but the Blue Devils rattled of a five-point run from there to gain the momentum and ultimately the Game 1 win.
Like her counterpart, Florence coach Christy Duchien's mid-set message was focused on her own squad.
"We talked about controlling what we can control, reducing our unforced errors; less missed serves, less net calls and just being in position on defense," Duchien said. "They started doing that, and things came around."
Defensively, the Falcons needed to be solid. The Blue Devils bring an onslaught of hitters aided by returning first-team all-conference setter Hannah Martin. The senior setter helped navigate a Blue Devil attack that had 32 total kills, spread out almost evenly. Sophomore Madeline Gilder finished with a team-high eight rally enders, while 6-foot-4 middle Isabel Evans and outside hitter Hannah Hutchison — both returning second-team all-conference players — each added seven kills.
But the Falcons countered with six blocks and 59 digs in the win, extending rallies so the likes of Jacklyn Balfourd and Sarah Hopcroft could secure the point. Hopcroft finished with 13 of Florence's 35 kills; Balfourd added 12.
"There's a deep level of respect between both teams and we both know we have quality volleyball," Duchien said. "Everybody's going to bring it because of that. ...The girls stepped up to it tonight.
"Kudos to Corvallis because they're an amazing program and they will go far this year, but this was a great match for us to see what we're truly capable of."
Those capabilities extended even beyond Balfourd and Hopcroft, two of Florence's top returning hitters who had impressive games Tuesday. Sophomore libero Kolbi Wood finished with a game-high 16 digs, while middle blocker Gracie Houston joined Hopcroft for the team lead with three blocks. Mackenzie Little added a team-high three aces. The Falcons got to see, in action against one of the state's best, that all of their pieces stack up.
The Blue Devils gained something valuable out of defeat, too.
"It's a good learning experience despite the loss. We see really good teams at divisional and state, so it's helpful to have these matches (with Florence) to keep ourselves in check," Corvallis setter, Martin, said. "It shows we need to be continuing to grow and get better."
It's nice to learn that lesson in a nonconference match between title contenders. The fact that it all made for exciting volleyball early in the season is just a plus.