For the last two seasons, Montana State University-Northern head volleyball coach Bill Huebsch has been working hard to restore pride, winning and consistency to the Skylight program.
And early on, Huebsch has found success as the Skylights have steadily improved in his two seasons at the helm. In fact, Northern went 11-14 in 2010 and finished with four Frontier Conference wins – MSU-N’s most successful season in six years. And even losses a year ago, the Skylights were much improved and showed great promise.
As Northern enters a brand new season of volleyball, Huebsch is excited and optimistic that the trend he started nearly three years ago will continue, but if it does, it will do so with a much different Skylight team.
Northern graduated three-time all-conference middle hitter Kaylee Bossert, as well as outside hitter Brittany Baker and setter Jordan Merrill to name a few. That trio helped lead a resurgent Skylight team last season, but with them and others gone to graduation, the Skylight have plenty of new faces on the 2011 roster. Still, Huebsch is excited about how his team has begun the season, and the possibilities of where it can go this fall.
“We lost some good, veteran players and there a lot of new faces on this team this year,” Huebsch said as the Skylights prepare to open the season Friday in Great Falls. “So far though, the new players have done a great job of adapting to our system and mixing with the veteran players who have been here. Practice has gone really well, our chemistry has been great on and off the floor and the team has quickly bonded together. So I’m really excited about where we’re at.”
Despite losing some key players, the Skylights do return five seniors, all of which have played extensively over the last three years. Outside hitter Sierra Diehl has been a solid player for the Skylights from day one, as has fellow outside hitters Paige Richardson and Tasha Dyrland. Ashley Lawson, another hitter, and setter Nahe Keanaaina round out the senior class. Keanaaina is set to start at setter for the Skylights this season after redshirting a year ago.
“We do have a veteran group of seniors and those kids will step up and be leaders for us,” Huebsch said. “They have been in our system for a while now and they are all solid players. So it’s really good to have such a veteran group of seniors and we’re going to be counting on their leadership, on and off the floor this season.”
The Skylights also return some young talent from last year’s squad in former Havre Blue Pony Holly Cartwright (DS/L), Karyssa Bowron (DS) and Samantha Hutcheson (RS). Those three will likely be an integral part of Northern’s rotation this season, and all three have shown a ton of improvement from a year ago, according to Huebsch.
“I think the game has really slowed down for that group, as opposed to last year,” Huebsch said. “All three of them have been really good in practice this season, and I think that group will be very important to this team this season. I’ve been really impressed with how far they’ve all come.”
But with eight holdovers from a year ago, Huebsch added an outstanding recruiting class, many of which will contribute right away for Northern. The most notable difference is the size and athleticism the Skylights added up front. Middle hitter Victoria Polo (6-2), middle hitter Sophie Malenfant (6-1) and right side hitter Hillary Isleifson (6-0) give the Skylights added size at the net, while outside hitter Kelsey Williams (5-10), a transfer from Lewis-Clark State gives MSU-N some added punch on offense. Northern also brought in outstanding players in Shayla Bly (S), Lynnsie Togiaa (OH), Kaylee Larson (OH) and Dayna Jensen (OH).
“Size at the net is one big thing we’ve added this season,” Huebsch said. “But overall, I think we have become a much more athletic and well-rounded team. Victoria, Hillary and Kelsey will be major contributors for us right away, and while they are new to the team, they are all veteran players and that’s nice that they can come in and contribute as upper-classmen right away. Those three are all very well-rounded, versatile and athletic players that we were very fortunate to be able to add to our team.
“And this whole recruiting class, I think we were able to just add some very good, athletic and talented players, and that gives us some depth we may not have had in years past,” he added. “I feel like we’re three-deep at every position on the floor and that gives us a lot of options. So I’m really pleased with how all of the players have done and how well they’ve bonded with our returning players and our veterans. They have been very close, on and off the court since the day we started.”
Northern has been practicing since early August, and Huebsch has been pleased with the progress. He’s also excited about what type of team he’ll have as the season gets going. But he also knows he won’t exactly know just what the Skylights are until the team starts playing real matches and that moment is drawing near. Still, through several weeks of training camp, he sees his team starting to take on some very good characteristics and he also sees areas in which the team still has room to grow.
“I really like our chemistry and our athleticism,” Huebsch said. “I believe we’re going to be able to put a very dynamic and competitive team on the floor this season, a team that compete with anybody. We want to be an up-tempo offense and we’ve worked hard on that throughout training, and the kids have really responded to it.
“Of course, I always believe you can get better in serve-receive, although I’ve been pretty pleased with that,” he added. “But an area where it will take some time is defensively. With so many new faces, adjusting to a new system, we’re not quite there yet, as far as being in the right position to make plays, knowing the right places to go and making adjustments. But that will come with match experience, so overall, I’ve been really pleased with how things have come together for this team, and I’m excited to see us get out there on the floor against quality competition.”
And the Skylights will find out plenty about themselves early on. Northern opens the season with twelve straight road matches at three different tournaments in the first three weeks. Then comes Frontier Conference play, and with the nonconference schedule the Skylights face this fall, Huebsch said his team will be well tested when it opens league play Sept. 9 at home against UM-Western.
“We play some good teams right away,” he said. “I believe we can compete with every team on our schedule, but we will face some quality competition early on. And I think that’s what we want. Of course, our goal is to win every match and play at a high level every time we step on the court, but we also want to be pushed, we want to be challenged, because we can’t achieve our long-term goals without that. And I think the early part of our schedule, we will certainly be challenged. And I’m just really excited about seeing where we’re at.”
As for the long-term goals, Huebsch is looking for his team to continue its upward rise in the Frontier, and as always, be playing its best volleyball come November. The Skylights were picked to finish seventh this year by the league’s coaches, but Huebsch is more than optimistic that his team can go much farther than that.
“I really like this team, I really like what we’ve done so far,” Huebsch said. “I like the attitude, the chemistry and how hard these kids work. I think we can have a great season, I think we can be very competitive in our conference and I know we’ll be a tough matchup for every team we face. Right now, I’m just excited about this season, I’m excited for the girls and I’m looking forward to seeing us make progress throughout the year.”
2011 Skylight Volleyball Roster
1 Victoria Polo, MH, JR, 6-2, Huntington Beach, Calif./Golden West CC; 2 Karyssa Bowron, DS, JR, 5-9, Cochrane, Alberta/Oklahoma Panhandle State; 3 Paige Richardson, OH, SR, 6-0, Carlyle, SK; 4 Holly Cartwright, DS/L, SO, 5-4, Havre, MT; 5 Shayla Bly, S, FR, 5-9, Calgary, Alberta; 6 Ashley Lawson, OH, SR, 5-10, Oxbow, SK; 7 Nahe Keanaaina, S, SR, 5-6, Kailua-Kona, HI; 8 Kelsey Williams, OH, SO, 5-10, Helena, MT/LC State; 10 Sierra Diehl, OH, SR, 5-9, Helena, MT; 11 Lynssie Togia, OH, FR, 5-8, Snake River, Idaho; 12 Sophie Malenfant, MH, FR, 6-1, Calgary, Alberta; 13 Kaylee Larson, OH, JR, 5-8, Ronan, MT/Wenatchee Valley CC; 14 Dayna Jensen, OH, FR, 5-8, Lewistown, MT; 15 Tasha Dyrland, OH, SR, 5-10, Kremlin, MT; 16 Samantha Hutcheson, RS, SO, 5-10, Brandon, MB; 18 Hillary Isleifson, RS, JR, 6-0, Carlyle, SK/Oklahoma Panhandle State.