Sunday Conversation: Iona Stookey still going strong in 29th year with Huntley Project

WORDEN – As the Montana volleyball landscape ebbs and flows with the arrival of another state tournament, there always seems to be one constant: Iona Stookey leading the Huntley Project Red Devils as the favorites in Class B.

Stookey has won 10 of the past 15 State B titles, including a perfect 33-0 mark to last season’s crown. Her team is undefeated once again this year, 30-0 heading into Brick Breeden Fieldhouse Thursday, the site of the team’s last loss in the 2016 state championship. The Red Devils have since won 63 matches in a row.

MTN Sports caught up with Stookey this weekend at Huntley Project, where her team swept four matches on their way to a Southern B divisional crown.

MTN Sports: “You guys are on quite a run here. I believe it’s 60 straight matches, something like that?”

Iona Stookey: “Oh, I don’t know about that. I try not to think about that, I’m not for sure. It’s probably close to that.”

MTN Sports: “Talk about this team. To run to the championship last year and to continue that run this year, it seems like a special group of girls for someone who has had a lot of special groups.”

Stookey: “Very special. They just work hard. We work hard at practice. They really want to get better, and they bring their A game. I just try to push them every day.”

MTN Sports: “Is there a difference with a team like this versus teams you’ve had in the past that haven’t reached this level of performance?”

Stookey: “I think 1), they get along. They have very good chemistry. I think all of them are very good in the positions that I have them in, and they’re all accepting their role and playing to the best of their ability in their role. Not all of them can play all the way around, and they’ve accepted that, and they’ve been playing hard.”

MTN Sports: “The ability in a sport like volleyball to play up classes and play some different opponents, it seems like you’ve always embraced that.”

Stookey: “When we played Belgrade and Lewistown, and played some (Class) A teams in the Livingston tournament, I didn’t think of it as beating a Class A school. I thought of it as us having to step up our game to compete at the next level. My goal when we play those teams was, ‘Let’s try to take a set from them. Let’s start at that, and then see what we can do.’ We just happened to put a good set together, and then a great match. With those teams, I think you can beat each other on any given night, so for us it was just, ‘Let’s step up and see what we can do.'”

MTN Sports: “Do you ever get the itch to play any of the Billings AA schools?”

Stookey: “I just like that volleyball, so I think it would be great to play whoever we could. It’s fun – there’s some great teams out there – and if you’re playing great teams and competing with them, you’re doing great things for your team by competing.”

MTN Sports: “You’ve been doing it for 29 years now. Did you ever think, back in your MSU Billings days, did you have a clue it would be that long?”

Stookey: “No, really I didn’t. My first four years I was at Shepherd, and it was right out of college, and, honestly, I didn’t know what I was doing. I ended up being the head coach because the head coach moved on. Still to this day, I go to a lot of coaches clinics, I read a lot of stuff on volleyball. I’m still learning – I just think there’s more out there. But no, I never thought. I was young and naive, but it’s been a great ride.”

MTN Sports: “Do you have any idea what the total wins number is now? Closing in on 800?”

Stookey: “I’m not sure where I’m at, but I know I’m closing in on that because somebody was talking about it the other day. There’s certain matches I would really like to win, and I have no idea what number those would be.”

MTN Sports: “You say a number like 800. Eight-hundred wins. It’s hard to keep track over that long, but is there anything that stands out to you?”

Stookey: “The first state championship was pretty cool, and then two with my daughters. That was fun, too. It’s been great. There isn’t one thing that stands out more than the other, but getting that first one, it took a long time. That one was at the Shrine (Auditorium in Billings) – the last one before it moved to (Brick Breeden Fieldhouse). I just remember our whole town was there, and it just gives you goosebumps to think about it, so that would be the one that really stands out. It was just that tournament atmosphere, and hometown pride, at the Shrine, it was just a cool thing.”

MTN Sports: “You mentioned the Fieldhouse, obviously next week coming back up again. Returning champions, you’re undefeated. Do you feel any pressure anymore, or do you like putting the pressure on the teams that you play?”

Stookey: “I feel pressure. I’m nervous all the time. I’m a nervous wreck, I’m probably the most superstitious person I know. I just try to get them the most prepared, and may the best team win. When you get to the state tournament, everybody there qualified, and they’re great teams. The team that brings their A game will win that tournament. I would love for that to be us, but we’re going to give it 110 percent and see.”

MTN Sports: “For a program that has won so many times as you guys have, I’m going to guess the saying, ‘Winning never gets old,’ applies?”

Stookey: “Yeah. Somebody asked me that one time, and every one of them is just as exciting, if not more. No, it doesn’t get old. I love seeing the girls’ faces, and the excitement of the team, and my assistants, and the crowd, and the school. No, it doesn’t get old.”

MTN Sports: “Let’s talk about a more specific number. Seven. Seven years since you’ve beaten breast cancer. Going back to 2011 when you were first diagnosed to now, how much has life changed?”

Stookey: “It’s changed a lot. It’s amazing how something like that can really open your eyes to what’s important to what’s really minute. Family – my family’s way closer. Just the stuff that’s really important. There’s life, and then there’s the little things, and I just want to live life to the fullest and have fun with it.”

MTN Sports: “Billings Skyview coach Vicki Carle is getting inducted this weekend into the MSU 125 Extraordinary Ordinary Women’s class. She was such a big person to you when this happened.”

Stookey: “Vicki is amazing. Any accolades she gets, she deserves. She was the first one who came out to my house when she found out about the breast cancer, and to this day we’re very close. The Pack the Pace in Pink, I give her all the credit, and I’ve kind of taken it on our end. It’s awesome. It’s an awesome, awesome thing. It’s all about her, and then all the people now that have come together with her. It’s really hard when our pink nights are the same night, because I would love to go there, and the last couple of years they’ve been the same night. But I know her feeling on it and mine are the same – even though we can’t be there, we’re thinking about each other.”

MTN Sports: “She started it in 2007, and it’s obviously grown since. Did your view of it, or feeling toward Pack the Place in Pink, did it change after you got diagnosed?”

Stookey: “Yes, definitely. Before I got diagnosed, I had went to the Skyview one – I just thought that was really cool. There was a time before I got diagnosed, I thought, ‘Boy, we could try to do that.’ But at that time, we didn’t have pink uniforms, there was a lot of stuff we didn’t have. And then when I was diagnosed, it was like, ‘We’re doing that.’ The kids I had that year, those seniors, were amazing. They took the bull by the horns and got it all taken care of. Now, it’s just been a big thing. It’s also Senior Night on top of it, so it’s a great night to honor those kids and pack the gym. There’s a lot of people there for a lot of reasons.”

MTN Sports: “Lastly, let’s talk how much longer you’re going to be here coaching.”

Stookey: (Laughing) “You know, I’m just not ready to be done. I love my day job. I love coaching volleyball, I love taking little kids and watching them grow and succeed. I don’t know, I still like what I do.”

Casey Conlon

Casey Conlon

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