Columbia Falls All-American leads Providence volleyball in high goal setting

GREAT FALLS – When the history of the University of Providence volleyball program is written, there will be no chapter from the 1970s – when the Frontier Conference began to crown the champions.

There won’t be any snippets from the ’80s or’ 90s either, as college volleyball was an alien concept on the Electric City campus until 2002, making Argos one of the newer programs. of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, which has held volleyball championships since 1980.

So when Arunas Duda says his current UP team is the best in the history of the program, the veteran coach speaks of a position of authority, having guided the Argos in more than 95% of their games.

“I think it’s the best ever because it’s the most complete team,” Duda said recently after his team beat rivals Frontier MSU-Northern and Montana Western to move to 3- 0 in the league, 16-2 overall.

“We have great depth and very good IQ on the court,” Duda added. “We have players who have taken on smaller roles for the general good of the team.”

The current UP team was ranked # 9 in the most recent NAIA National Survey, the highest score ever recorded by the school. Last year’s team, which finished 22-3 and advanced to the second round of the national tournament, placed 13th in the final poll.

And the Argos did not reach their high rank by playing the pancakes. Their only two losses were against strong Nebraska rivals Belleview and Doane.

“Belleview was No. 8 (in the poll) and Doane is 15-4,” Duda said. “We are 7-2 against ranked teams this year. It’s a big part of our philosophy to play the best possible opponents as it affects your ranking for the playoffs.

Preparing for the playoffs was not part of Duda’s strategic plan when he accepted the post of principal at the University of Great Falls – the former name of UP – in 2004. He was 24 years old and had no than two years of experience as an assistant coach. at a junior college in California.

“I had two options: take an assistant job in the state of Idaho or the senior job in Great Falls,” he recalls. “I think I made the best choice.

For the first two years of UGF volleyball, the team was guided by Dick Scott, a former head coach of the University of Montana, an NCAA Division I program. These teams have won a few games and Duda hasn’t been much better in his freshman year, going 7-21.

But the Argos have only endured two more losing seasons since. And while the Frontier Championships have been few and far between – 2006 and 2019 are the only regular-season league titles to date – the program has gradually gained the respect of its rivals and rookies.

Duda admits his recruiting priorities must have changed over the years.

“In the early years we were looking for the best physical athletes, and there wasn’t much consideration for other factors,” he said. “But as we got better, we emphasized the intangibles, character and good academics. Over the past half decade, we’ve been fortunate to find players who are both (high talent and character).

Perhaps the ‘poster girl’ of those assets is Cydney Finberg-Roberts of Columbia Falls, a 5-11 senior passer who was a second All-American team in 2020 after being named player of the year. in the border region and the north-west. She wasn’t very recruited in high school, in part because she was a member of the Finberg clan – the Flathead Valley’s first basketball family.

Cydney Finberg walks past Hardin’s Trahnea Phelan. Columbia Falls defeated Hardin 73-50 to win the Class A State Championship at Butte on March 4, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flat head beacon

Cydney’s father Cary was an excellent basketball player who went on to become one of Montana’s top high school coaches. His uncle, Craig, was a legend in C-Falls and an All-Big Sky ranger in Montana State. Craig became a very successful hoops trainer at Beaverhead High in Dillon before he died of cancer.

“Due to family dynamics, I guess I always expected to play basketball in college,” said Cydney, who was an all-state basketball and volleyball player in the United States. high school. “But about my sophomore or freshman year, I realized deep down that I liked volleyball more… when I went to pick a school, I considered the coach and the program and I decided this was fine for me. “

Duda added that “it didn’t hurt that her (future) husband, Shonn, was a wrestler here.”

The current UP team has two other athletes who won the NAIA All-American Honorable Mention last season. Senior libero Sacha Legros, from Belgium, was No. 1 in the country for recoveries per set (7.4) last season. Sadie Lott, a senior passer from Idaho who has 212 wins this season, was also nationally acclaimed in 2020.

The Argos also have excellent hitting skills with Jenna Thorne (216 kills), Madysen Hoerner (129) and Zoe Naugle (109). Hoerner is a Columbia Falls freshman who has also flown under the recruiting radar.

Of the 18 athletes on the UP list, 13 are from Montana.

“We’re focusing on the kids in Montana first, and a lot of them are a bit neglected,” Duda said. “Madysen was definitely one of them. She is extremely athletic.

Columbia Falls High School volleyball player Madysen Hoerner. Antuono Hunter | Flat head beacon

Currently only two volleyball players have been entered into the Argos Track and Field Hall of Fame – Brittany Prater (2004-07) and Cali Buck, native of Choteau (2006-09). Duda strongly believes that a few of his current players, as well as assistant coach Kelsey Shaver, will eventually join them.

“I don’t see how they can keep Fin from coming in.” She’s been a godsend for the program, ”said the veteran coach.

No Frontier Conference school has ever won an NAIA volleyball championship, and that remains a long way for the Argos, who hope to improve their national profile significantly over the next month.

“We would really like to avoid being 14, 15 or 16 (ranked) before the tournament, because then you are immediately playing against the best teams,” said Duda. “If we can get to the top four or five, you have a better chance. “

The Argos resume Wednesday’s championship game in Helena against a strong team from Carroll College. The Frontier Conference tournament will also be played in Helena from November 12. After that, there will be the NAIA playoff game – and a chance to rewrite the history book.

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