Heading into the season, there was little doubt that Stanley and Ray would finish atop the District 16 standings. The only question was which team would claim the No. 1 seed.
The answer is tournament host Stanley (28-9 overall, 10-0 district), which defeated Ray (26-7, 8-2) in four sets on Oct. 10 to grab the top seed. The Blue Jays won all three matches against Ray, with the other two victories coming in the Coal Country Invitational and in the Northwest Conference tournament.
"We've improved our defense and if we can keep the ball alive, we typically have good hitters all the way around, so we should be able to put the ball away," Stanley coach Jessica Niemitalo said.
Niemitalo expects to play Ray in both the district and region tournaments.
Stanley rolled over the remainder of its district opponents, winning all four matches in straight sets. The Blue Jays are undefeated in non-tournament games (11-0), which includes a sweep of Mohall-Lansford-Sherwood - the No. 1 seed in District 12. Stanley is led by senior middle blockers Chai Pappa and Angela Nielsen and junior setter Brianna Holland.
"We've constantly improved and have gotten rid of mistakes and limited unforced errors toward the end of the season," Niemitalo said.
The Blue Jays have a first-round bye and will play the winner of No. 4 seed Powers Lake (11-8, 4-6) and No. 5 seed Burke County (8-13, 2-8) on Tuesday. The tournament begins Monday.
Second-seeded Ray, the defending district champion, dominated opponents not named Stanley in non-tournament matches. The Jays were 12-0 in those matches, winning 11 in straight sets. Seniors Haley Hodenfield, Hanna Gillund, Taylor Nelson and Paige Dolan lead Ray, which plays the winner of No. 3 seed Divide County (12-11, 6-4) and No. 6 seed Tioga (4-24, 0-10).
Lakota-Edmore (21-7, 5-0) is the top seed and has a first-round bye along with No. 2 Carrington (25-6, 4-1). The tournament begins today with host New Rockford-Sheyenne (14-16) playing No. 5 seed Midkota-Kensal (9-21, 1-4) in the opening round. No. 3 seed Harvey-Wells County (21-7, 3-2) plays sixth-seeded Benson County (11-17, 0-5) in the other first-round match.
L-E swept district play, dropping just two sets in five matches. Carrington was the lone district team that gave the Raiders trouble. L-E won the district match 3-1, but the Cardinals defeated the Raiders twice in straight sets in the Lakota-Edmore Tournament. Carrington won the district tournament last year as the third seed.
The top three seeds have already qualified for the Region 4 tournament. No. 4 seed Rolette-Wolford (15-15, 2-6) and No. 5 St. John (3-21, 0-8) open the district tourney Friday in Rolla. The winner advances to the region tournament.
The winner of R-W and St. John will play top-seeded Langdon (30-7, 8-0). No. 2 seed North Star (29-2, 6-2) plays No. 3 seed Rolla (23-7, 4-4). Langdon is the defending district champion. The Cardinals were pushed to five sets against North Star and Rolla this season. North Star - led by senior Allie Heisler, junior Sarah Hagler and 6-foot-2 freshman Macey Kvilvang - have won 10 of 11, which includes wins against Bishop Ryan, Stanley, Bottineau and Carrington.
No. 1 seed and tournament host Underwood (17-7, 5-0) rolled through its district schedule. The Comets have five seniors that contribute to the team's production. Senior middle blocker Abby Landenberger leads the team in kills, set up by sisters Taylor and Erin Dammann. Underwood, which has won 8 of 9 dating back to Sept. 28, plays Garrison-Max today and Shiloh Christian on Friday before the district tournament begins Monday.
The Comets and No. 2 seed Wilton-Wing (16-13) have a first-round bye, but that didn't mean much last year, when Underwood was the top seed and lost to Washburn in the semifinals. No. 4 Center-Stanton (10-24, 2-3) plays No. 5 Washburn (10-21, 1-4) and third-seeded Turtle Lake-Mercer-McClusky (9-18, 3-2) plays sixth-seeded Garrison-Max (8-22, 0-5) in the opening round. W-W is the defending disrict champion.
Top-seeded Bottineau (23-7, 7-0) is a heavy favorite to win its district tournament, which begins today in Towner. The Stars are the only team in the district to finish above .500. Bottineau draws No. 8 Sawyer (5-17, 0-7) in the first round. Senior outside hitters Danielle McDonald and Courtney Gallaher, along with senior setter Bailey Neubauer, have helped the Stars dominate district opponents. Bottineau dropped just one set in seven district matches.
No. 2 seed Velva (13-16, 5-2) - last year's tournament champion - plays No. 7 seed Drake-Anamoose (6-18, 1-6). Fourth-seeded Westhope-Newburg (9-16, 5-2) plays No. 5 Rugby (13-17, 3-4). The Panthers were the only district opponent to force a fourth set against Bottineau. No. 3 seed TGU (8-18, 5-2) plays No. 6 seed Dunseith (4-12, 2-5) in the final first-round match.
No. 1 seed Watford City (10-13, 5-0) looks to repeat as district tournament champion on its home court. The Wolves have a first-round bye and play the winner of Monday's opening-round match between No. 4 seed Trenton (4-14, 2-3) and No. 5 seed New Town (2-17, 1-4). Watford City is undefeated against district opponents, but are 1-7 against non-district foes in non-tournament matches. The Wolves close out the regular season against Heart River at 7:30 tonight.
Trinity Christian (9-11, 4-1) owns the No. 2 seed and has a bye into the semifinals Tuesday. The Crusaders play the winner of No. 3 seed Parshall (4-12, 3-2) and No. 6 seed White Shield (0-10, 0-5).
Mike Kraft covers high school athletics, the Minot State University men's club hockey team and the Minot Minotauros. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.