Florence team

The Florence volleyball team celebrates a point against Corvallis earlier this season. The Falcons, who are 19-2 this season and the Western B's No. 1 seed, meet Shelby in the first round of the Class B state tournament starting Thursday in Bozeman.

FLORENCE — Don't stop reading because this storyline sounds familiar: The Florence volleyball team is headed to the State B volleyball tournament in Bozeman starting Thursday as the West's top team.

Simply stop, for a moment, and appreciate the Falcons' run of dominance — even if Florence itself doesn't want to rest on its laurels. 

"...Like Lou Holtz said, if you're maintaining your dying. (We need to) keep on moving, keep on growing," Florence coach Christy Duchien said. "I think they know nothing is given, you have to work hard for it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a two-year (streak) or 10-years. You gotta work day in and day out."

Florence has done exactly that for a decade, working its way to the West's No. 1 seed to state every year since 2009. The 2019 rendition has done the past Falcons proud, too, with a 19-2 overall record this year and an undefeated mark outside of tournament play.

Those two losses came in shortened three-set matches. One came to Choteau at its own tournament all the way back in August. The other defeat happened last month in the MCPS tournament. It came in the championship match to Class AA Great Falls CMR.

Florence's five seniors — Jacklyn Balfourd, Emma Stensrud, Halle Christopherson, Sarah Hopcroft and Emily Kinnaman — have only known success under Duchien, also in her fourth year at the helm of the program.  

"We've all played together since we were younger and I think that just us being together has helped a ton and our program has such a strong structure. It's just growing every single year," said Stensrud, the Falcons middle blocker.

The consistency of that core — Stensrud said the connection on the court is stronger and the team's talent is "spread across the court" — again has Florence poised for a deep run at the state tournament.

"These girls have been playing together for a long time, and it's not just four years with me, but with this current coaching staff," Duchien said. "It’s a pretty special group. We’ve been preaching self confidence with them because we believe that they can do great things. We just want them to believe it to.

"We’re expecting special this week."

So, too, is Huntley Project — Class B's dominant darling that has shown no sign its ready to relinquish its crown as the state's best squad. It's a storyline that's as played out as Florence's own. The Red Devils are the two-time defending champs. They've won 96 straight matches. They've dropped just two sets all season.

And for two years that storyline has superseded Florence's, as it's been the Falcons who have twice fallen to Huntley in the state championship match. It makes the possibility of a second-round matchup at state between the two teams difficult not to look forward to for someone outside the Florence huddle.

While Florence certainly isn't looking past its first-round matchup at noon with Shelby at Montana State University's Brick Breeden Field House, the fact is that if both the Falcons and Red Devils hold seed, they'd meet in a 6 p.m. match on Thursday. Huntley plays Glasgow in Thursday's opener.

So how does a team beat Huntley? That's been the question for everybody in Class B for nearly three seasons now, and truthfully, the better part of the last two decades. Coach Iona Stookey, now in her 30th season, has won 11 state titles with the squad since 2003.

Similarly, it's a question the teams in the Western B have had to ask themselves with Florence for the last 10 years. Stensrud plainly pointed out Huntley's mortality — the same reminder that has propelled Florence to keep pushing.

"We just gotta play our game. They’re beatable. Everybody is beatable," Stensrud said. "We gotta do our own thing and not really worry about what’s on the other side."

Duchien likewise summed up Florence's strategy.

"Iona has an amazing program and what she does there, so it’s going to take a lot of work," she said. "The team that makes fewer errors is the team that’s going to take them down. You can watch as much film as you want to, you can prepare as much as you can for certain players and certain defenses, but it comes down to the team that makes the fewest errors.

"Hopefully we’re that team."

Florence will have to be if it's going to write a new story: Going from Best in the West to the Best in Class B.

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