MISSOULA — Dani Bartsch’s future is on the basketball court for the Montana Lady Griz, but the Helena Capital senior sure has a fair dose of volleyball acumen.
Bartsch displayed her volleyball talents Tuesday to help the Bruins start their quest for a third consecutive State AA championship with a 25-13, 25-16, 25-22 win that spoiled the head coaching debut for former Montana volleyball player Brittany Tilleman, whose Hellgate team showed some promise for the future.
“I think we’re definitely capable of a lot of big things,” Bartsch said. “Hellgate’s a great team. They came to fight. We should have handled the third set a little bit better. We missed a lot of serves. We’re going to need to work on that and our consistency. But overall, I think it was a great game.”
Bartsch and the Bruins showed their offensive firepower by using the height and hard-hitting abilities that helped them go undefeated last season without being pushed to a fifth set. In fact, they’ve lost just two games since the start of the 2018 season, and with four starters back this year, they’re once again the team to knock off across the state.
The 6-foot-2 Bartsch, who had opportunities to play Division I volleyball, silenced some of her potential future fans in Missoula by accumulating eight kills with her mix of powerful spikes, quick tips and well-placed pushes while adjusting to the block attempts of 6-5 Alex Covill. The Bruins led just 7-6 in the first set when Bartsch’s first kill started an 18-7 run, which ended with her getting the set-winning kill, but her contributions are more than just stats.
“Her leadership is definitely all the way around, front and back row,” Capital coach Rebecca Cleveland said. “Her communication, when we get quiet on the court, she takes it as her responsibility to communicate to everyone and encourage her teammates to rise up. She does a great job at it. She’s really dependable. She’s definitely a go-to offense and defense for us.
“What I appreciate is I know she committed to the Griz, but she is all-in for Bruin volleyball. It’s her senior year, and she wants to finish it with a bang and isn’t coasting, so that is pretty cool.”
Bartsch led the offensive onslaught with her twin sister Paige Bartsch, a Boise State volleyball commit and the 2019 Montana Gatorade Player of the year. Paige, a 6-4 senior middle hitter, collected a game-high 13 kills.
The Bruins put down 32 kills as a team, getting set up for success by senior setter Audrey Hofer, a Montana State volleyball commit and the 2018 Montana Gatorade Player of the Year. Hofer tallied 21 assists and two of the team’s six blocks.
“We showed we need to work on our consistency in our serving,” Cleveland said. “That was a flaw that we will fix, and we have the capabilities of fixing it. Our passing was on point. We had great coverage for our hitters. Our hitters need to use their versatility a little bit more when they’ve got a block in front of them. That’s an area that we know how to play, we just need to bring that to the court.”
Head coaching debuts don’t get much tougher than opening the season against a two-time defending state championship team that has three future Division I athletes. That’s where Tilleman, a 23-year-old first-time head coach and 2019 Montana grad, found herself leading a team that finished 1-13 last year.
Her Knights didn’t wilt under the pressure, improving throughout the night and making each set closer than the last by using their serving abilities and quick reflexes on apparent kills and blocked shots at the middle of the net. Their 21-20 lead in the third set was their first lead aside from being up 1-0 in the second and third sets.
“I think serving was a key factor, and they started to ring that in as we went with serving more aggressive,” Tilleman said. “They showed me that they are willing to fight and they want to fight and they don’t want to relive last season. I thought they defended really well against the hard-driven shots. It was more the tips and stuff that we need to work on a little bit more.”
Senior outside hitter Wren Filardi, one of four returning starters, tallied six of the team’s 13 kills. Covill, a sophomore, had three of Hellgate’s six blocks, and senior Kennedy Kuhn tabbed six of the eight assists.
“I appreciated their defense,” Cleveland said. “They’re definitely showing quicker reads on defense than last year. I think all around they’re a stronger team. It’s neat to see that competition on the other side of the net. They’re super scrappy, so it’s good to have that challenge. It shows us we cannot be back on our heels. We’ve got to push every point and when we get to that serve line, we’ve got to make our serves count.”