By Ryan Divish
The Montana State-Northern women's volleyball wasn't going to let illness or injuries stop them. With a pair of players suffering from the flu and another injured in the tournament, the Skylights pulled together to win three of four matches and finish second at the UM-Western Invitational in Dillon.
"It was good tournament and tough one," said Skylights coach Lisa Handley. "It's the first time in many years that Northern has been in position to win a tournament."
The Skylights got into that position by defeating conference foes Montana Tech and the University of Great Falls on Friday and Westminster College on Saturday.
Going into the tournament didn't look promising for the Skylights. On Thursday night, the Skylights were swept in a non-conference match by conference foe Carroll College 30-16, 30-26, 30-13.
"Thursday night kind of woke us up a bit," Handley said. "Carroll is the toughest place to play in the conference and that's why I wanted to play them in a non-conference game before the conference season started."
To make matter worse for the Skylights, starters Tamecia Watkins and Emmy Olson started suffering from flu-like symptoms. By the time the team was ready to take the floor Friday morning in Dillon, flu-like changed to the flu.
"It was about as bad as can get," Handley said of Watkins and Olson's condition.
Both players fought threw the illness and played in the Skylights 22-30, 30-28, 30-21, 30-20 win over Montana Tech to open the tournament.
Watkins led the Skylights with 21 kills and 16 digs while Olson had 14 digs and five kills. Hannah Nutting dished out 43 assists while Brandy Pushka finished with seven service aces, one short of a Northern record.
The Skylights then kept the University of Great Falls winless on the season by sweeping the Lady Argos 30-28, 30-26, 30-28 in Friday's final game.
Northern was led by Watkins again with 12 kills and 15 digs while Nutting had 33 assists. However, Olson was sick enough that Handley pulled her after just one game and she also sat out Saturday morning's match against Westminster. Watkins wasn't feeling much better and only played one game in the match.
The Skylights defeated Westminster 30-28, 30-15, 28-30, 30-27 but lost a third starter in the third game as Tanja Bruski went down with a severely sprained ankle. With Watkins, Olson and Bruski out, Jasmine Mitchell stepped up her production. The sophomore middle hitter led Northern with 16 kills, 10 blocks and seven digs. Julie Henderson also had a solid game with nine kills and eight digs while playing tough at the net.
Northern's perfect record put them in the championship against the host team, UM-Western. Both Watkins and Olson playd in the championship match, but the Skylights were clearly a team hurting. The Bulldogs swept them 25-30, 21-30, 13-30.
Watkins again led Northern with 13 kills and 12 digs. Nutting added 27 assists and 14 digs while Olson and Henderson combined for 18 kills and 27 digs.
For her efforts, Watkins was named to the all-tournament team which Handley hopes will give her confidence.
"Because she's a basketball player playing volleyball, she doesn't have confidence in herself as a volleyball player," Handley said. "Hopefully, this will show her she's a volleyball player too.
Handley caught a glimpse of her young team's potential but the losses to Carroll and Western showed her team's inexperience.
"They need to believe in themselves as much as I believe in them," Handley said. "They held back at times and made a lot of offensive errors. When things get tough, they need to get more aggressive. I do think we took a step forward this weekend."
The Skylight will play their first home game on Friday night against Montana Tech and they host Lewis and Clark State