BOZEMAN – Joliet was playing more than just a volleyball match Thursday night.

The J-Hawks were playing for a fallen classmate.

Playing inspired volleyball and the initials TW and a small heart written on the side of their ankles, Joliet rallied to defeat Three Forks 11-25, 25-19, 25-18, 25-18 to reach the unbeaten semifinal at the Class B state tournament for the first time in program history.

The J-Hawks will play perennial unbeaten semifinal participant Huntley Project, which easily swept Jefferson in the other quarterfinal match. The unbeaten Red Devils (31-0) have reached the unbeaten semifinal 12 straight years and 13 of the last 14.

The Southern B put all four teams in the quarterfinals.

“The Southern B is just so tough,” Huntley Project head coach Iona Stookey said. “There are a lot of great volleyball teams in the Southern B.”

The winner of the 6 p.m. Friday match advances to Saturday’s state title match. Both are also guaranteed a top-three finish.

“We were playing for Trey Ward,” explained Joliet senior Vanessa Nowak.

Ward, a junior, passed away Thursday morning from Batten Disease, a rare genetic disorder that takes away a person’s sight and motor skills.

“They were playing for Trey tonight,” J-Hawk coach Colette Webber said.

Just a week ago, Joliet lost twice to Three Forks at the Southern B Divisional tournament in Red Lodge. The J-Hawks had defeated the Wolves at the Jefferson tournament earlier in the season.

“We just had a lot of grit tonight,” Nowak said. “We just wanted to win so bad. We played well on everything.”

Nowak is one of just two seniors on the Joliet roster.

“We have a lot of young players,” Nowak acknowledged. “I didn’t think we’d make it this far. This is amazing.”

Nowak finished with a match-high 15 kills. She also had three aces. Makenna Bushmann added 14 kills, and Shayla Webber had a triple-triple double of 20 digs, 18 assists and 12 kills.

Morgan Allen led Three Forks with 14 kills. Shainy Mack had 13 kills and 12 digs.

Friday will be the fifth meeting between the Red Devils and J-Hawks. Huntley Project won twice during regular season and twice at the district tournament.

“It does help,” Webber said of having go through the rugged Southern B to reach the state tournament. “You have to play at a very high level of competition. Iona has set the bar pretty high. It makes you work harder as a player and makes you work harder as a coach.”

Huntley Project 3, Jefferson 0

The Red Devils used defense and offensive balance to take care of Jefferson in approximately an hour.

Alana Graves had 12 kills for the Huntley Project. Mollee Krum and Ashton Albrecht each had 10. Albrecht also had 13 digs. Maggie Taylor had a match-high 25 digs, including a big save in the second set for a point, while Kamille Reynolds had 18.

“Our setters did a good job moving the ball around,” said Stookey, whose team had 10 aces. “And I thought we served well.”

Addy Hultgren (20) and Heidi Cranford ran the offense with 37 assists.

“Put the ball where the hitters need it,” said Cranford. “For us, it comes down to confidence on the court.”

The Red Devils’ 78 digs helped slow up Jefferson’s taller hitters. Emily McGinnis led the Panthers with 14.

“You focus on where they’re trying to go,” Cranford added. “Try to take away the spots they like to hit. We know defense is our thing. Those long rallies, we practice those every day.”

Aubrey McMaster added 16 assists for Jefferson.

"They're the best defensive team we've ever played,"Jefferson coach Mike Majors said of Huntley Project. "We hit bombs at them." 

Huntley Project 3, Fairfield 0

Huntley Project wasted little time powering past Fairfield in the first round.

The unbeaten Red Devils (30-0) swept the Eagles 25-13, 25-10, 25-8 and will play Jefferson in the 6 p.m. quarterfinal match.

Fairfield will play Florence-Carlton at 10 a.m. Friday.

Sophomore Alana Graves led Huntley Project with 13 kills. Mollee Krum had seven and Ashton Albrecht five. Heidi Cranford added 15 assists, seven digs and an ace.

“Huntley Project is a well-oiled, consistent machine,” Fairfield coach Courtney Bake said. “They don’t make too many mistakes.”

Chesney Rogers had nine digs and three blocks for the Eagles.

“This good for our team. We’re young,” said Bake, whose team has just two seniors. “The whole goal is to make it to state. It’s take a while, but we finally got a rotation we were comfortable with the last couple of weeks. We played really well at the divisional tournament.

“We just ran into a tough draw for the first round at state.”

Jefferson 3, Florence-Carlton 2

The tournament got off to a thrilling start with Jefferson rallying from a 2-0 deficit to defeat Florence-Carlton, 16-25, 21-25, 25-23, 25-23, 15-10.

Emily McGinnis, who has signed to play for Montana Tech, led the Panthers with 22 kills. Aubrey McMaster had 29 assists and two aces.

That was the best defensive volleyball we've played all year, Florence is very challenging," Jefferson's Majors said. "After we got down 0-2 the girls really dug deep."

Sarah Hopcroft paced the Falcons with 23 kills. Shay Waldbillig had 60 assists.

“We played Florence volleyball,” Falcons second-year coach Christy Duchien said of the first two sets. “We were mixing things up. “They keyed on our hitters (in the final three sets) and put up a big block. We had a hard time getting the ball around them.

“Our motto this season has been ‘Grit.’ Now is the time to show some grit.”

Joliet 3, Shelby 0

The J-Hawks, the No. 3 team out of the South, made it three for the three for the Southern B in the first round, 25-13, 25-14, 25-23. Shayla Webber had a double-double of 20 assists and 12 digs, while Makenna Bushman had a match-high 14 kills. Bushman and Webber each had three aces. Joelle Luoma had a double-double of 12 assists and 10 digs.

Shelby was the No. 1 seed from the North.

“I envy them,” Shelby coach Ron Buck said of the Southern B teams, who have dominated the Class B state tournament. “When you play that kind of competition all the time it makes you tougher.

“Sets one and two, that wasn’t us. Set three, that’s the team we have.”

 Brittany Brusven led the Coyotes with six kills, while Skyler Martin had seven assists and 17 digs. 

Three Forks 3, Eureka 0

The Wolves made it a Southern B sweep with a 25-14, 25-11, 25-23 victory.

Morgan Allen, who has signed with Rocky Mountain College, had a match-high 19 kills, while Shainy Mack added 10. Allen also had eight blocks and 11 digs.

Kyle Olson dished 29 assists for Three Forks. Olson was stepping in for starter Talyn Pitcher, who suffered a season-ending knee injury at the divisional tournament in Red Lodge.

Kassi Peterson had 12 kills for the Lions.

— Curt Synness of contributed to this report.

Sports writer at the Billings Gazette

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