Ray, Stanley continue region dominance battle

Since 2007, only Ray and Stanley have represented Region 8 at the state tournament.

Tioga – in 2006 – was the last team not named the Jays or Blue Jays to capture the region title and earn a berth to state. But before Ray and Stanley allow another team to jostle with them for region supremacy, the two powers would like to get their hands on their first state title.

“It’s just the way the programs are,” Stanley coach Jessica Niemitalo said. “When things get going and the kids see success, it keeps the success going. They like to stay on top.”

Stanley had a stranglehold on the region during a four-year stretch from 2008-11 when the Blue Jays appeared in the state tournament each season. In the final year of that run, Stanley advanced to the state title match, but fell short in a straight-set loss to Central Cass.

Ray bucked the trend last year with a little help from Watford City. The Wolves knocked off Stanley in a four-set semifinal before falling to the Jays in the region championship. It was Ray’s eighth appearance at state and first since 2007. Only six programs have been to state more than the Jays.

Ray graduated three seniors, including all-state middle blocker Kendra Heier. But the Jays have five more seniors on the roster this season.

“We’re looking to fill three spots and we should be a pretty solid team, especially at the end of the season,” Dolan said.

Senior Hanna Gillund – a member of the all-tourmament team at state – will replace Heier at middle blocker and classmates Taylor Nelson and Paige Dolan will serve as outside hitters. Senior Haley Hodenfield will continue to be the team’s starting setter after leading the Jays in assists last season.

“She’s in on every play and we need to have her in good health and she’s been able to do that in volleyball,” Dolan said of Hodenfield. “If we can keep her healthy, we should be pretty solid.”

Junior outside hitter Sidnee Nelson will also be part of the rotation.

Stanley’s roster also includes five seniors this year, including all-state middle blocker Chai Pappa. The Blue Jays boast a tall roster as every returner stands at least 5-foot-6. Senior middle blocker Angela Nielsen (6-0) and Pappa (5-10) are Stanley’s tallest athletes. The roster features five seniors and six juniors, but also a number of sophomores and freshmen.

“We’re young, but I’m very excited,” Niemitalo said. “I think they’re scrappy and they have a lot of potential. We haven’t really played yet, but we look to be real strong in each position.”

Niemitalo said the disappointment of not making state last season has re-energized the team.

“It was pretty hard on the few that had been there,” she said. “A lot of those girls coming up feel that want and really want to stay competitive and get back to that state tournament.”

If this is the year that a new region representative emerges, it could come from either Watford City or Divide County. The Wolves already proved they can beat Stanley – though they were swept in straight sets by Ray in both meetings last year. Divide County finished last season 10-12-1, but returns its entire roster.

Mike Kraft covers high school athletics, the Minotauros and the Minot State men’s club hockey team. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.