by Kyle Koso
Taking over as head coach of a college volleyball program means tackling a million modest tasks – what’s the gate code for the parking lot again? What grocery store should I use? Can someone from IT unfreeze my school laptop?
And then there’s the Godzilla of chores, standing in front of the roster you’ve inherited to introduce yourself and start the never-easy process of transition and putting your vision in front of total strangers who didn’t ask for this disruption of routine.
If there was any awkwardness for Matt Houk and his staff upon taking the reins at Montana State in early 2023, everyone on the Bobcats roster must have been more interested in getting on with the business at hand. And that’s led to a memory-packed run – a school record for wins at 24-8 overall and MSU’s first-ever postseason appearance, which sees the Bobcats in the 2023 NIVC Fab 4 and ready to take on Wichita State (24-8) on Saturday.
Houk had been a pivotal assistant coach with Minnesota for nine years prior; with an earlier six-year run as head coach at South Dakota, he already had the muscle memory needed for a new gig, but he made sure the groundwork in his thinking and planning was well established before he and his wife, associate head coach Jen Houk, made the move to Bozeman, MT.
“The great thing about my time at Minnesota and being around Hugh McCutcheon was living out how you take a program to the place you want. He told me, you have a very small window for how you’ll establish who you want to be as a leader, so you’ve got to know the things that are important to you,” said Houk, whose team has won three road matches in the NIVC vs. Pacific, Sacramento State and Wyoming. “I’d been thinking about what it would look like when a head coaching opportunity came again, and I’ve been making sure I knew what my program would stand for. We walked in the doors, sat the returners down and talked about the principles that make my world turn, and I’m hoping you can get on board. And if you can’t that’s OK, you didn’t sign up for this, and I’ll help you move on. But luckily, it was a group that looked me back in the eye and said, it looks great. I believed if we could do those things in Year 1, there was a chance for the team make an improvement on the path, let alone get better at volleyball. You have to have things you stand for.”
While the Bobcats had been essentially treading water for multiple years, they did show some spark in 2022, beating Big Sky Conference powerhouse Weber State twice on the road, including an upset in the league’s tournament. With a major portion of that group coming back in 2023, Montana State had some real intrigue on paper.
“We looked at film of Montana State from (last year) before we ventured down this road, and we could absolutely see the talent in the room. We were quite excited and saw players we could help mold and reach a new level of ability,” Houk said. “And we saw they won some good matches and lost some bad ones. One of the things we did really well in Minnesota was being really steady, being consistent over a long period of time. You don’t want to have these big waves you’re riding – sure, you’ll have great moments and lower moments, but you hope the bandwidth is not really big. You’ll never be perfect, but could they be more consistent? You have to improve your repeatability, raise your baseline of mastery that (holds up) in big moments. This is really a unique team, 20 athletes on a roster who have a genuine care and concern for each other.”
This season ended on a very sour note in the Big Sky tournament, with MSU dropping a five-set throwdown against Weber State in the title match, but the Bobcats were able to reset mentally when the NIVC option arrived. It’s a roster that’s evolved as a competitive handful over time, anchored and defined by senior Kira Thomsen, who has 539 kills (tied for No. 7 nationally in D-I) and a program-record 1,636 kills.
“Kira is a really solid volleyball player; more than that, she’s grown so much as a leader. She used to lead by voice a lot, and now she’s added how to do it by example,” Houk said. “To come in every day, do the work deliberately, a kid who was already really good but committed to making a change. When you have one of your best players showing, I’m trying to get better … that sends a message to the whole program, that the goal is to get better along the way. That’s the thing she’s done that’s been better than any stat line, any night she’s put the team on her back. Everyone has improved around her because of the way she’s chosen about doing her job.”
The offense is run with touch and skill by JUCO transfer and junior setter Nellie Stevenson, who has 1,023 assists; sophomore Madilyn Siebler has 263 kills and classmate Camryn Greenwald has added 199 kills. Montana State has definitely leaned on junior Jourdain Kamps (327 kills) and sophomore libero Lauren Lindseth (488 digs) for peak performances.
“Jourdain as an opposite hitter, she’s another attacker we can lean on. She balances the court with Kira, allows us to go pin to pin and stretch the defense out,” Houk said. “Not only has she been a good attacker, but her block and serve and defense has been really impressive. She’s on the court all the time for us and does a bit of everything.
“Lauren all year has been a rock out there, super steady. She doesn’t necessarily put up flashy numbers, but she’s at four or five digs every set, she serves a great ball, a high ace rate, and she makes sure the other passers don’t have to cover big chunks of the court. When our setter digs, she puts up a very hittable ball, a good thing for sure when teams try to mess with your offense by taking your setter out.”
Replacing Thomsen next year will certainly be a hurdle for the Bobcats, but scaling that obstacle will certainly be more manageable given the lessons and learning that has come from their NIVC trek. Houk has the attitude, shared by his players, that while the close call in missing out on the NCAA tournament might sting, the NIVC is their chance to punch back and be ready for more, someday.
“You’ve got goals and aspirations as a new coach – I very much thought Montana State could be near the top of the conference, year in and year out, and could play in the postseason. To have an opportunity in Year 1 is really cool,” he added. “The NIVC recognized our body of work and saw how well we were playing down the stretch, so to get the at-large bid was a big deal for the program. Montana State had never played in the postseason before. I think it’s an adventure and one you have to lean into. You win a match and hey, you don’t know where you’re going next. Then you’re told, OK, you’ve got a flight tomorrow night.
“We told the team, who knows how many times in your life that you’ll have these types of experiences. It’s uncomfortable at times, and sure, it would have been great sleeping in our own beds, but that’s not our lot right now. We have another chance to compete together, in someone else’s gym. These are experiences that build what your program is about. We embrace every moment, and I feel almost in debt to the NIVC for the opportunity to show what Montana State is all about. You could send us to the moon, and we’d be ecstatic.”