After Belgrade earned a side out on the first point of the match Saturday afternoon, Taylor Christensen unexpectedly took off her warmups.
The senior walked over to the scorer’s table and subbed into the match for what would be her first and only appearance this season during an Eastern AA match against Billings West. Christensen tore the ACL in her left knee in July, but was medically cleared to serve one time on senior-parent day.
While she’d stepped to the service line hundreds of times before, this final one before the home crowd in the Belgrade Special Events Center was certainly the toughest.
“It was really nerve-racking. I was super scared to do it. Just because it would be embarrassing to miss it,” Christensen said. “It was fun. It was really cool to just see all the support I still have this year.”
Despite missing the season, Christensen will still graduate as the program’s all-time leader in digs (1,811). She was on pace to break the Montana High School Association’s career mark of 2,074.
Christensen, who will play college ball at the University of Providence in Great Falls, holds school records for digs in a 3-set match (33), digs in a 5-set match (45), and single-season digs (639), which ranks fourth overall in the MHSA record book.
While it’s been frustrating watching from the bench, Christensen was grateful to the opportunity to have at least one play her senior season.
“It was really important for me to just be able to feel like,” Christensen said before pausing to wipe away tears. “To feel like I was still part of the team.”
Oh yeah, Christensen’s serve, well she scored an ace.
“That was perfect,” Christensen said.
Another of Belgrade’s four seniors, Gracie Tadvik, received special recognition as well. Tadvik tore the ALC in her right knee during a match against Bozeman in September, but she was introduced with the starters before being subbed out prior to the first serve.
“It was really emotional. I knew it would be. Gracie has waited her entire volleyball career to play her senior season and senior night is full of so many emotions anyway, but to be able to get Gracie and Taylor in just for a minute made the whole night special,” Panthers coach Jessica Christensen said. “I think that built us up in that first set and we played really well in that set.”
The Panthers (5-17, 2-10 Eastern AA) rode the early emotion to a 9-1 lead. But West, which trailed by as many as nine late in the first set, rallied to win the game en route to a 26-24, 20-25, 25-19, 25-14 victory.
“We limited the amount of errors we had in the first and second set. Everyone did their job in the first and second set,” said coach Christensen. “We let some points go that they earned, which I will take that, but in the third and fourth set our serve-receive struggled some. They’re good aggressive servers, they serve well.”
The Bears (20-7, 8-3 Eastern AA) tallied 13 aces in the match, while Shauna Stene recorded 19 kills.
The Panthers were led by 15 kills and 14 digs from Hazel Eaton.
The teams will meet again Thursday in Billings in a Eastern AA playoff match. The winner advances to the state tournament Nov. 14-16 at Montana State University.
“I honestly feel like we can play with any team in our conference right now. I think we are a tough team to play at this point,” coach Christensen said. “If we play hard anything can happen. I just think we need to believe that we’re good enough to beat anybody.”
Billings West def. Belgrade 26-24, 20-25, 25-19, 25-14.
BILLINGS WEST (20-7) - Kills: 43 (Shauna Stene 19). Digs: 79 (Molly Nault 27). Blocks: 6 (Stene 2). Aces: 13 (Megan Benton 7). Assists: 34 (Taylor Graham 32).
BELGRADE (5-17) - Kills: 31 (Hazel Eaton 15, Tessa Lamb 8). Digs: 81 (Tyclee Bowler 28, Eaton 14, Olivia Wegner 13). Blocks: 9 (Lamb 6). Aces: 3 (3 with 1). Assists: 31 (Delanee Hicks 26).