HELENA -- There was never really any doubt that Helena Capital, the defending Class AA state champions, would make it back to defend its title.

But, despite an undefeated regular season, the Bruins still had work to do Tuesday night as they hosted Missoula Hellgate in a Western AA playoff match, with the winner advancing to the state tournament in Bozeman next week and the loser heading home.

While the eighth-seeded Knights entered the Bear's Den as massive underdogs, they hung tough for a bit, especially in the first set, before getting swept by the scores of 25-17, 25-15 and 25-15 Tuesday in Helena.

"It feels pretty awesome," Capital head coach Rebecca Cleveland said. "The undefeated thing, they just worked so hard all season long to get that undefeated title and as far as going to state, we are super excited."

"Going into the playoffs," she added. "We wanted to play our game. It's a blessing to get a playoff instead of a bye because it's another opportunity to refine your play."

And refine they did.

In the first set, after jumping out to a 6-1 lead, the Bruins had a few hiccups. Eventually, they built a 14-8 advantage but a 6-0 run by the Knights quickly evened the score and forced Cleveland to spend a timeout.

Following the timeout, the Bruins hitters started to get going. Some points from Paige and Dani Bartsch helped Capital re-take the lead and senior Sarah Ashley drove home the winning point to take the first set by eight.

In the second set, Ashley continued to hit the ball well and a slew of kills helped the Bruins build a 9-3 lead early. Ashley later added an ace as Capital never trailed in the second set, which it won 25-15.

"Sarah had a great second set," Cleveland said. "She was really on point with her passes and started to get more of a range with her hitting, which is always good for us when she is using her different shots."

In the third, Hellgate got off to a strong start again, pulling in front 6-4 early. Yet, the Bartsch twins, Ashley, Audrey Hofer and the Bruins simply wore down the Knights and capped the sweep with another 10-point win.

Ashley led all hitters in the match with 14 kills. Paige and Dani Bartsch each posted 11 as Capital finished with 50 kills compared to 19 for Hellgate.

Hofer also contributed with 39 assists and Kennedy Pocha pitched in with 10 digs for the Bruins, who will head to state boasting a record of 22-0. 

"Audrey is just a really smart setter," Cleveland said. "She runs a great offense and she hustles and gets to every ball, even if they are off target." 

Lydia Barrow had six assists to lead the Knights, while Gillian Sherrill contributed with four kills. Kayla Rammell also managed 16 digs. 

With the win, the Bruins will be in Bozeman next Thursday for the start of the Class AA state tournament, where they will look to win a second straight state championship.

The victory also capped a perfect home record at the Bear's Den for the Bruins. 

"It's really cool for our seniors to be able to say that they were undefeated and really handled things at home," Cleveland said. "We have had the chemistry and believed in each other from day one."

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Chris is the sports editor and lead preps reporter for the Independent Record and 406mtsports.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmpetey406

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