MISSOULA — Wren Filardi could not stop smiling.
Sure, it might have been hard to tell behind the mask, but it was pretty obvious the Missoula Hellgate volleyball team was pleased with its hard-fought 23-25, 25-18, 25-14, 25-19 win over Missoula Big Sky on Tuesday night on their crosstown rival's floor.
Filardi and fellow outside hitter Camille Sherrill combined for a good portion of the Knights' kills as each made play after play, eventually wearing down the Eagles.
"Oh my god, so much," Filardi said of how much the win meant after the game. "Last year, Big Sky was the only team we beat, and it was on senior night. We lost the first game against them in five, which was brutal. It was the beginning of season too.
"That was tough, and we were all like, 'We need to go harder.'"
The win was Hellgate's fourth of the season, quadrupling its win total from a year ago. So, there is quite a lot to be celebrating for the Knights.
The Knights have shown significant improvement in head coach Brittany Tilleman's first season — and not just in the win column. There is a distinct camaraderie around the squad, and its offense is fun to watch.
Much of the Hellgate offense came from Filardi and Sherrill, who routinely sent balls line against Big Sky. This was a bit of an offensive adjustment — Hellgate liked the matchup it had on the outside — and the duo was able to hit a number of balls into the zones it wanted.
"We changed and didn't run our inside-outside hit, they have a little block on the outside, and it was like, 'Guys, we can beat this girl," Tilleman said. "And there were times when she wasn't blocking and we were still running the ball inside to the middle blocker.
"Those adjustments opened up a ton offensively, like one you hit this ball line, it's going to open up so much more."
There were occasionally some hitting errors, and there were a few times where the ball flew out the back after one of the Knights players put a little more juice on it than they needed to.
But, for the most part, they were able to dial it in and scored the points they had to have when they needed them.
"Their outside hitters, we were just trying to get the defense out of system as much as we can," Big Sky head coach Mathew Pimentel said. "They kept beating us to the outside a little bit. They kept beating us to the antenna, which we struggle with a little bit.
"They killed us all along with that cross ball today, but I got to give it to their outsides. They came out and wanted it."
Big Sky took the first set on a Hadlea Fred kill and seemed to have the momentum coming into the second set. The Eagles clawed back after a 12-7 Hellgate start in the opening set and never trailed in the set after Fred got a kill to make it 22-21.
Fred finished with eight kills and two blocks on the night. Jackie Robbins also had eight kills for the Eagles.
"The biggest thing is keeping our heads held high," Pimentel said. "We just have to stay confident, and we can't let this deflate us."
Big Sky got on another strong start in the second set, but it could not capitalize on a few early Hellgate mistakes and found itself trailing 16-11 after back-to-back kills by Gillian Sherrill and Filardi.
Sherrill added another kill a few points later to give the Knights a commanding 18-12 lead. Big Sky did pull within five after a massive kill from Grace Bunnell, but Hellgate was able to finish out the set.
The Knights got off to a strong start in the third set to take command of the game and then fended off a determined Big Sky crew in the fourth to end the match.
Gillian Sherrill had three aces to lead the Knights, while Raia Chase had a strong night defensively with 24 digs.
"This is definitely my favorite team I've ever been a part of," Filardi said. "Especially with school, and, like last year was kind of interesting. We won one game, and it was really awkward and stuff at some points, but this year, it's just like everyone's all in all the time. It's really awesome to be a part of."