WORDEN — Every time they step on the court, the players know the history that rests upon their shoulders.
Ten state championships, a current 63-match win streak and a second consecutive undefeated season within their grasp.
But this year’s group of Huntley Project volleyball players carries more than just jerseys, shorts and shoes in their gear bags.
This year, the connection to the storied Class B program is personal. The current players know they are forever linked with the players who wore the same jersey number before them.
Head coach Iona Stookey wants consistency in a program steeped in tradition and soaked in success. Just ask the players about the red notebook she carries to every match. Or the practice schedule that has varied little in almost two decades. Or the state tournament eating schedule.
The team always warms up the same: The player wearing No. 1 leading the team out to the court and the player wearing No. 12 making sure everybody stays in line and together.
While not big on change, one thing Stookey is not afraid to do is learn.
During the annual coaching clinic in Great Falls this past August, Stookey listened to how Montana State volleyball coach Daniel Jones reached out to former players to learn more about the program. The MSU coach had former players write to current players about what their former jersey number meant to them.
Stookey brought the idea back to the Red Devils when practices started. Using social media and other contacts, Stookey sent out 74 responses and got 63 back. The replies varied from single-sentences to two full pages.
And she got more than a walk down memory lane.
“Some of the answers caught me off guard,” Stookey said. “It was pretty emotional.”
Many of the letters were heartfelt responses to another generation of young women who play volleyball for Huntley Project.
“For me, it was really cool that so many were willing to share their experiences,” Stookey said.
A glance through the stack of replies – some date to 1991 – show the depth of emotion attached to their uniform number. Many of the numbers have remained within families, passed from sister to sister or cousin to cousin.
Four Cranford girls – Bailey, Emma, Heidi and Amanda – have worn No. 7. The Moullet sisters (Tiffany and Bethany) have shared No. 6 with cousins Stormy and Cady Siemion.
“So many great players wore this jersey,” said Red Devil senior Josie Peterson, who wears No. 6. “It’s a lot to live up to. It made me super nervous when I got the jersey. Whenever I’m playing, I wonder if they’re looking at me and saying, ‘She’s wearing my jersey.’ “
For those who played at the next level, they carried the same number through their college careers.
Peterson, Maggie Taylor and Mollee Krum are the three seniors on this year’s roster. They have been on the varsity since freshmen and have worn the same number each season. Krum wears No. 11, and Taylor broke from the family to make her own path with No. 3. Her older sister Faith wore No. 2 most of her career.
“It gave me a good perspective of how hard they worked and taught us to work harder,” Krum said. “I remember Brittany McKinney’s letter, she said ’11 is one better than 10'.“
Stookey originally planned to give the players the letters when they received their gear bags. But she waited a day until after practice.
“I told them at the end of practice, ‘I have something for you,’ and handed it to them,” she said.
Two of her current assistant coaches, Sarah (Rager) Reynolds and Billie (Greene) Schaff, also wrote letters to the current players. Reynolds wore No. 7 and Schaff told the players she was, “The original No. 10.”
“It made me take a look back and see what I learned from the program,” Reynolds said. “I told them things that I would have wanted to know in high school, like don’t sweat the small stuff. That the hard work does pay off. It made me proud to wear No. 7.”
The players keep a laminated copy in their gear bags. Taylor joked hers was the least crumpled of her senior teammates' copies.
“It was emotional,” Taylor said of reading the letters. “All the girls who were in the program before, pouring their hearts out what it meant to be part of this. It was very touching.
“So many wrote how this program was life-changing and how that coach Stookey is there for you no matter what happens in life.”
The players learned so many before had gone through the same rigors of a high school season where expectations are always high.
“Just to know what the people ahead of you went through and you’re going through the same,” Krum said.
The three acknowledged that some letters reached deeper into the heart than others.
“One talked about how volleyball was all she had and how hard she worked at it,” Peterson said. “That pushed me to do better.”
Letters from the players on the 2008 team, the year the high school burned down, particularly touched home.
“We were in second grade when it happened,” Taylor said. “We came into town to watch the fire.”
“Those players, they literally had to fight to win, they never gave up,” Krum added. “How those players didn’t have their own gym because of the fire. They didn’t have a gym for two years. It’s kind of crazy to think about not having a gym to play in.”
While the uniforms have changed and even the hairstyles, a passion for volleyball connects the Huntley Project past with the Huntley Project present.
“We want to live up to that tradition,” Krum said as Peterson and Taylor nodded in agreement.