There were cheers and tears as the Clark Fork Lady Mountain Cats made history by winning the Western 13C District Volleyball Tournament on Saturday in Missoula. The Lady Cats killed, blocked and clawed their way through the brackets to meet their season nemesis, the Seeley-Swan Blackhawks.
It was the challenge match played late in the afternoon when the Cats finally knocked the Blackhawks off their perch with a 25-18, 14-25, 25-23, 25-17 win.
As the Cats received their championship plaque, a tearful head coach Toni Labbe said the girls were, “amazing, they are a great group of kids and I’m so proud of them.”
The Blackhawks beat the Cats twice during regular-season play and pushed them into second place going into the tournament. Seeley was the number-one seed but fell to Valley Christian on Friday. Valley had ended the season in fourth place and this put Seeley in the consolation round. There they beat Lincoln (in sixth place) and then number-three seed Darby. On Saturday afternoon, they faced Valley once again and beat them — putting Seeley back into the championship match against Clark Fork.
Clark Fork swept past Darby on Friday afternoon with close games ending the match with 25-18, 25-19, 25-18. They then faced the Valley Christian Eagles on Saturday morning and found themselves grinding through a series of close games with Valley winning the first. In game two, the Cats managed to stay in the lead by a few points and through some cleverly placed kill shots, winning 25-23.
In game three, they took an early lead and maintained it until late in the set. Valley came back and tied the score at 21 among an electrified crowd at the Valley Christian gym. In the end, the Cats fought back for a 25-23 victory. In game four, the Eagles came out with an early lead and maintained about a five-point spread. But slowly the Cats narrowed that gap and finally tied the game at 17. Then pulled ahead for a 25-21 win — putting them into the championship match where they faced the Blackhawks.
During that match the Blackhawks swept by the Cats 25-15, 25-17, 25-15. They took an early lead in game one and the Cats couldn’t make up the points, the closest they got was within four. Game two and three told the same story, where Seeley took the lead and maintained it throughout the sets.
Charged with one more chance to beat their rival, it was Seeley who kept them from winning Districts last year when the Cats fell to the Blackhawks for first place. It was Seeley who put them in second place at Districts this year. It was Seeley who had just won the championship match.
“They had to go into the lockerroom after that first loss and they talked about ‘who did they want to play for?’” said Labbe. In the end, the Cats said they were playing for each other, and not just for themselves, “and that’s what we saw.”
After 14 tournament games, 16 season matches, two season tournaments, the Lady Cats, now stained with sweat, muscles sore, arms stinging from the relentless pounding of the leather volleyball, faced their nemesis, the Blackhawks, for the fifth time.
This is when true champions dig deep and play, not with their skills, but with their heart. It’s a time when those lockerroom words drummed through their head as they once again took to the court. It’s a time when players must push past their pain, their fear, their doubt and find courage within themselves to once again, pound back against their challenger.
And pound the Cats did. They took an early lead in game one and kept it throughout the set, and won 25-18. In game two, Seeley took the lead and the Cats lagged behind seven, and then 10 points, for a loss, 14-25. In game three, the stuff champions are made of kicked in and the Cats took the lead, leaving the Blackhawks struggling to keep up. They finally did with the score tied, 21-21 late in the game. The tie continued, 22-22; 23-23. Then the Cats pulled ahead, 24-23 and finally, 25-23 for the win.
In game four, Seeley began to flounder, tied at 7-7. But from there, the Cats climb was steady and they left their challengers digging in the dust with a final, district championship game of 25-17.
The Cats travel to Manhattan Christian this weekend for the Western C Divisional Tournament.