BOZEMAN - The All-Class state tournament can be a marathon, especially if you took the road Manhattan Christian did all the way to the Class C state championship.

And it's a road that head coach Jill Ayers is familiar with taking, which was fitting, since the five-set title win over Bridger Saturday at the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, will be her final match as the Eagles head coach.

Sending Ayers out with a second Class C championship was always the goal for the Eagles, but after losing to Bridger Friday night in the undefeated semifinals, the path got much longer -- and tougher.

"That is the route I have taken my entire career," Ayers said after winning her second state championship as Manhattan Christian head coach. "It's what I am used to."

"Now I can ride off into the sunset" She added. "And that's awesome. Go out on top so they can't fire you."

After outlasting Belt in five sets Saturday morning, the Eagles still needed to defeat Bridger twice and in the first match, Manhattan Christian stormed out of the gates, winning 25-18 and 25-8 before closing out the match in the fourth set, 25-23.

Kiersten Van Kirk tallied 20 kills to keep the Eagles hopes alive. Taylor DeVries also contributed with 43 assists and four blocks. 

Then, in the winner-take-all championship match that followed, the Eagles again built a 2-0 lead (25-20, 25-23) before Bridger rallied to tie things up by taking the third and fourth sets 25-18 and 25-20.

In the fifth and final set, the two teams continued to go back and forth, trading points until it was tied 10-10. That's when the Eagles took a time out.

"We just talked about how this was our last chance and that we had to give it everything we got," Eliana Kuperus said. "And it worked."

Of course, it helps when you have a hitter as dominant as Van Kirk. The uber-talented sophomore drilled home some key points late, including the championship point, which gave the Eagles the 15-12 win and the state title.

"It was just so exciting," Van Kirk said when the final ball landed in bounds. "It's indescribable. I am just so happy right now."

Van Kirk said she was exhausted too, as she should be after the three-day performance she put forth.

In six matches, Van Kirk averaged an incredible 24.5 kills per match, including 33 in the clincher. 

"Being a state champion has always been a dream of mine," Van Kirk said. "And this just feels unreal. I am so proud of my team."

And like all of her teammates, the Eagles put it all on the line to give their head coach a proper send off.

"Knowing it was her last season, it has been our goal all year," Van Kirk said. "We wanted to bring home a state championship for her."

"She is just a great coach," Kuperus said of Ayers. "We just wanted to thank her for being our coach and I am just so excited that we won it for her."

The fact that the Eagles had to win three straight matches Saturday to achieve their goal, made it even more satisfying. The three wins Saturday also pushed Ayers over the 300 mark for her career. She will finish with 302. 

"Wow is all I can say," Ayers said of her players wanting to win for her. "I think it was something they wanted to do. I never mentioned it to them. I was going to retire regardless and today was just the icing on the cake."

In addition to Van Kirk's 33 kills, she also managed 23 digs and four blocks.  The Eagles also got 56 assists from DeVries.

Emily Adkins was also stellar in the loss for Bridger, finishing with 27 kills, three blocks and two aces. It was the second straight season that Bridger lost a winner-take-all title match in the fifth set. 

Manhattan Christian 3, Belt 2 

It's never easy to knock out a team on Saturday morning of the All-Class state volleyball tournament and when it's a defending champ, it's even more difficult.

But that's exactly what the Manhattan Christian Eagles did Saturday, ousting defending Class C champion Belt in five sets to advance to the state title match.

The Eagles, who lost to Bridger Friday night in the undefeated semifinal, will get another chance at the Scouts Saturday at approximately 12 p.m., following a five-set win by the scores of 25-21, 22-25, 24-26, 25-10 and 15-12.

Kiersten Van Kirk was dominant for the Eagles in the win, as she finished with an incredible 28 kills. Eliana Kuperus also managed 12. 

Manhattan Christian will now take on Bridger and since the Scouts won the first match, the Eagles would need to beat them twice, in back-to-back matches to take the Class C state title. 

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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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