All-out effort (copy)

Lauren Lindseth and her teammates at Great Falls CMR are eliciting reminders of the last unbeaten Rustlers team in 2000.

GREAT FALLS – High school volleyball has changed a lot over the past two decades, particularly in a place like Montana, which was one of the last states to sponsor the sport for girls.

At the turn of this century, Montana athletes were still playing in the winter – one of a handful of states that didn’t conduct a fall season. Sets were played to 15 points – not the current 25 – but those points were available only to the serving team. That made for a lot of down time and scoreless droughts.

“Games took forever. It was painful,” recalled Lindsey (Graham) Gustafson, who was a middle hitter for Great Falls CMR back in 2000.

“Absolutely, the games seemed to take forever,” added Paula Olsen, who coached the CMR program 21 years ago. “Rally scoring speeded things up and made it faster for everybody.”

But one thing hasn’t changed in the CMR volleyball universe over the past two decades. The Rustler girls are once again undefeated heading into the state tournament.

That 2000 squad sealed the deal with three straight victories at the State Class AA tourney at Billings Skyview to finish with a 27-0 record. The current squad, coached by Patrick Hiller, also is 27-0 entering the State AA tourney beginning Thursday at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse in Bozeman.

Winning a state championship has been a season-long goal for CMR, ever since the Rustlers fell one victory short in 2020, falling to Helena Capital in five sets for the state title. But finishing without a blemish has never been a priority, claims Hiller.

“We never talk about being undefeated,” said Hiller, whose team has dropped only three sets all season. “Our only goal was to get better each week, and mostly I think we’ve accomplished that.”

Besides the spotless records, the 2000 CMR squad and the 2021 Rustler team have a lot in common. The 2000 team was coming off a state title – although with a few losses — in 1999, while the 2020 Rustlers went 17-1 in the COVID-shortened season.

However, the composition of the CMR rosters were drastically different. The 2000 squad had all seniors – 11 of them – and they were the same athletes who won the previous year.

The current team has five seniors, five juniors, one sophomore and one freshman on the state roster.

Olsen, who has been a pillar of the CMR volleyball program for nearly 25 years – as a head coach, assistant coach and Team Mom – views both teams as remarkably similar, even if the rules have changed the game.

“I felt we had six or eight great volleyball players, and Patrick’s team does, too. We were better at every position and that’s why we won … so are they,” she said.

The greatest of the “six or eight great” CMR players back in 2000 was 5-11 outside hitter Mary (Lester) Bowe, who went on to become an NAIA All-American at Carroll College, where she is a member of the school’s hall of fame.

Hiller remembers Lester vividly, since he was an assistant coach at Missoula Sentinel 21 years ago when CMR defeated the Spartans for the state title.

“All of our pregame prep was for Mary,” Hiller recalled. “We did everything we could to slow her down.”

Hiller made a key offseason move when he asked Bowe to serve as a volunteer assistant coach. She doesn’t make every practice or every road trip, but she’s available to provide advice and perspective.

“That’s why I brought Mary in here,” said Hiller. “She’s the one who’s done it (won state championships). That’s her picture on the wall.”

Bowe also has been organizing a social media campaign to connect her former teammates with the current players. She has been collecting emails and text message from the 10 living team members from 2000; Diane Radcliffe passed away a few years ago from breast cancer.

Mary plans to deliver the messages at practice this week.

“Just some well-wishes and maybe words of wisdom,” said Bowe, who will attend the state meet along with her biggest fans – her two young children and her mother.

Lester had a lot of help back in the day, according to Olsen. Graham, although better known for her softball talent (four state titles at CMR), was a solid hitter and ball retriever, and the Wright twins, Jaci (defensive specialist) and Jody (setter) were among the best in Montana at their positions.

The current Rustlers are headlined by senior setter Tenni Hiller, the coach’s daughter, and senior outside hitter Lauren Lindseth, whose mother, Kelly, is a current assistant coach and former head coach. Both athletes are al-state at their position; Lindseth began her career as a libero but switched to outside hitter as a junior. She has committed to continuing her career at MSU, where her mother played more than 20 years ago.

Like most coaches, Olsen doesn’t like comparing her former players against the current crop of stars. But she admits CMR’s all-time best list has to include Lester, Lindseth and Hiller, along with her own daughter Allie, a 6-3 middle blocker currently playing at the University of Utah.

“Mary was the most successful player I coached … so if you’re looking at athletes, volleyball skills and success, yes you would have to say Mary, Allie, Tennie and Lauren (were the best ever).

“Don’t forget Tenni in that discussion,” Olsen emphasized. “I know Allie wouldn’t be the player she is if Tenni hadn’t been her setter.”

The other current CMR seniors, Natalie Bosley, Rosie Burke and Jordan Belote, provide solid leadership and experience. Libero Avarey Stuff and outside hitters Ella Cochran and Norah Allen are juniors who likely will be honors candidates next year. And 6-2 freshman middle blocker Abby Carpenter has been effective at the net, improving with every game.

Bosley, a three-year regular who also competes in track and basketball, said nobody – not even the seniors -- is thinking past Thursday’s opening foe, the Butte Bulldogs.

“We don’t talk about going undefeated, not much at all,” Bosley said. “We just do what we do and let other people talk … for us, it’s one point at a time.”

Maybe 20 or 21 years from now, there will be time to talk about another undefeated volleyball season for the CMR Rustlers.

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