Belgrade was as confident as it had been all season.
The Panthers were leading at Billings West, one of the best teams in the state, after having won two of the first three sets. Belgrade had learned from its previous losses to the Golden Bears and adapted accordingly.
But West turned it all around. The No. 2-seeded Golden Bears defeated the No. 7-seeded Panthers 12-25, 26-24, 15-25, 25-17, 15-12 on Thursday in the Class AA playoffs.
“We gave West all they could handle,” Belgrade head coach Jessica Christensen said. “We took care of business. It’s tough to lose at the end of the season no matter what, but I’m really proud of how they came out and performed tonight.”
The Panthers (5-18) lost to West (22-7) in four sets about a week ago. They had struggled with serve-receive, Christensen said, so she rotated her outside players to try and fix the issue. She also rotated her blockers to try and combat West’s best hitters.
It resulted in a 13-point statement victory in the opening set, an extra-point loss in the second and a 10-point win in the third.
“Everyone played well,” Christensen said. “We played together as a team. Our energy was high.”
But as the match wore on, West’s student section began to pick up the noise and impact the Panthers mentally, Christensen said.
West remained resilient, forcing the match into a fifth set and then finished the contest off.
“It’s sad. They’re disappointed but proud of themselves,” Christensen said. “It’s hard no matter what.”
Hazel Eaton led the Panthers with 13 kills while Kamie Gorrell added 11. Tycelee Bowler totaled 21 digs while Eaton added 16.
“It was back and forth,” Christensen said. “It was just a couple of points. We made some mistakes, and they didn’t. That’s a good team.”
Throughout the season, Christensen said, the Panthers gained the confidence necessary to compete with Class AA teams in their first season at that level. Belgrade had lost seven seniors from last season, Christensen said, and only had one returner with some varsity experience who contributed.
Christensen admitted the Panthers were disappointed. But she added they should be happy with the strides they made.
“It was a great group who had been waiting for their moment and their time,” Christensen said, “and I felt like they really stepped into that. I have a really great group of kids. I’m happy with how they finished off the season.”
Billings West def. Belgrade 12-25, 26-24, 15-25, 25-17, 15-12.
BELGRADE (5-18) - Kills: 39 (Hazel Eaton 13). Digs: 69 (Tycelee Bowler 21, Eaton 16). Blocks: 6 (Tessa Lamb 2, Delanee Hicks 2, Brytan Rogers 2). Aces: 8 (Eaton 2). Assists: 26 (Hicks 26).
BILLINGS WEST (22-7) - Kills: 51 (Megan Benton 18). Digs: n/a Blocks: 4 (Stene 2). Aces: 7 (Shauna Stene 2, Benton 2). Assists: n/a.