FLORENCE — At the Florence volleyball kids camp earlier this summer, coach Christy Duchien's two outside hitters showed off their unique personalities on the court while trying to teach some 50 youngsters — a record turnout according to Duchien and a testament to the excitement surrounding the Falcons heading into the 2019 season.
Sarah Hopcroft and Jacklyn Balfourd will likely add to that buzz as they deliver devastating kills from the positions on the court tasked with putting points away. But the similarities might stop there for the teammates. While both are lethal with a volleyball, their demeanors and style of play on the court is a little different.
And that could mean good things for the Falcons.
"(At camp), Sarah would sit there and analyze until she could break down everything and give (the kids) little tips," Duchien explained. "Jacklyn's more the motivator and the go-getter. Having them both out there is awesome."
Possessing two talented players who can provide a consistent third-hit kill is every volleyball coach's dream. It makes a team less predictable to opposing defenses, something Duchien is shooting for, adding that she wants to establish her other hitters, too.
But having the twin killers — with unique personalities — starts the Falcons on solid footing. It's something Florence utilized successfully last season as well.
Behind all-state outside-hitting from Hopcroft and since-graduated all-stater Shannon Byrne, the Falcons stormed into the 2018 state tournament unbeaten and as the Western B's top team, finishing the year 20-2 overall. Byrne and Hopcroft would actually compete for kills mid-game to see who could lead the team stat in any given match.
Hopcroft, who signed to play volleyball with Montana Tech next year, is back on the outside for her senior season with Florence. She needed a new partner in crime, though.
In stepped Balfourd, who was named to the all-tournament team last year at state while playing as the opposite/right-side blocker.
"This year I’ve put her to outside; it shows her versatility and what she’s able to do," Duchien said of Balfourd. "She’s a dynamic player on the court She’s really stepped into a leadership role and is more vocal."
Then there's Hopcroft, who coach Duchien described as "calculated."
"She leads by example," Duchien said of Hopcroft. "They definitely do have different styles out there."
Each girl sees their play meshing perfectly this season.
"Jacklyn can play anywhere, so having her as a right side last year was really good for our block and now this year she can hammer balls down," Hopcroft said.. "This year she’s going outside and is filling Shannon’s spot and she’ll do very well. She’s a very good passer, a very good serve-receiver and a very good hitter."
Said Balfourd on Hopcroft: "It’s going to be a huge strength for us having us both as hitters. Not only is Sarah a smart player, she’s such a consistent player.
"When it comes down to a play that needs to be made, maybe it's an offset, she always knows what to do with the ball."
That blending of big-time ability could very well be the recipe to get Florence over the state title hump.
Huntley Project has been Florence's personal eliminator the last two seasons. Twice the Falcons have reached the state championship game in search of their first-ever Class B state title. Twice Florence has been denied. The Falcons' only two losses last year came to Huntley Project — once in the undefeated semifinal at state and once in the title game itself.
Meanwhile, the Red Devils have won 67 straight matches and 11 state titles in the last 16 years, including their two most recent state championships.
And Florence has, bitterly, had a front row view for both.
"Oh Huntley," Hopcroft said, smiling despite a bit of a groan. "We can play everyone else in Class B and Huntley is always the one everyone gets excited for. They're such a good team."
Figuring out a way to beat them now falls to Hopcroft, Balfourd and the rest of the Falcons — a senior-laden bunch that also returns all-stater Halle Christopherson and all-conference middle Emma Stensrud.
"We can't get scared and panicked in the game. I think that was one of our biggest things last year, especially in the semifinals," Hopcroft said, trying to come up with an answer for the Red Devils. "We all kind of tightened up and were like ‘Oh my gosh, they have such good hitters. We just have to take it slow and play our game with them."
Balfourd also looked inward when trying to figure out an eventual game plan.
"Taking second to them just builds our fire, it keeps us going," Balfourd said. "We have such a good group of girls, our heart is going to take us where we need to go."
Fortunately the Falcons' game is good, too. It has been for the better part of a decade — Florence hasn't missed the state tournament in nine seasons. To get to Huntley, the Falcons likely just need to stay the course.
"We have expectations to return back to that level, but we also tell the girls that you can’t jump a ladder. You have to take it one rung at a time," coach Duchien said. "We know we’ve gotta focus on what’s in front of us while still preparing to the best of our ability for the top of the ladder."
Florence will start the scale again — this time with a new balance on the outside.