By Ryan Divish
Forgive Montana State-Northern volleyball coach Lisa Handley for sometimes forgetting how young her team is. It happens because the talent and the athleticism her team displays can be blinding.
However, with her team's inexperience comes inconsistency and it was very apparent this weekend as the Skylights were swept in their first two home matches of the season.
Montana Tech defeated Northern 30-28, 30-20, 30-26 on Friday night while Lewis-Clark State defeated the Skylights 30-23, 30-17, 30-25 on Saturday night. The losses were especially bitter for Handley and her team because they were the first conference matches of the season and they didn't play up to their potential
"I'm disappointed in the fact that we didn't play the way we can play," Handley said. "That's what we lack is that consistency that makes teams champions. I forget sometimes how young we are, because I see how good we can play."
There were glimpses of that potential on Friday night. In front of close to 900 people at the MSU-N gymnasium, Northern battled a tough Tech team in two of three games. However, the combination of aggressive Tech serving and poor Skylight passing would lead the Diggers to the win.
The Orediggers had eight service aces in the match. While Northern was able to receive most of Tech's serves they weren't able to make the passes to get into a rhythm offensively.
"Tech is the toughest serving team in the conference," Handley said. "It hurt us as far as serve receiving. We didn't pass as well as we usually do and my main passers started backing away on serves and they can't do that."
Handley worried before the home opener that her team would react negatively to playing at home in that they would be tentative. Her hunch was right.
The Skylights looked tentative at times and appeared frustrated with Tech's unflappable defense. The Diggers are aptly named because they dug everything.
"We try and make every ball playable," said Tech head coach Marilyn Tobin.
And they seemed to. Northern had some great attacks, but Tech defenders were always there to get the ball up.
Tech took control early in game one. Northern fought back gamely after trailing 22-15 at one point. The Skylights tied the match at 26 on a booming Tamecia Watkins kill. However, that was as close as they would get in the game. Northern players would touch the net on the next two plays, resulting in Tech points, and a Collette Phillips kill and a tip took the first game.
In the second game, Northern fell behind early and stayed behind. Phillips had three aces in a crucial eight-point run by the Diggers.
The intensity that was missing in game two reappeared in game three. Northern took control early in the game, building a 12-6 lead. Tech came back behind the play of Janalee Stokken and Angela Bausch. The duo combined for nine kills as Tech retook the lead.
Northern was led by Watkins with 14 kills and 14 digs and Hannah Nutting with 34 assists and 11 digs. Tech got 19 kills from Michelle Howell and 12 from Janalee Stokken.
The Skylights had hoped to build off the emotion from Saturday's Lights football victory when they took on Lewis-Clark State on Saturday night. But, instead Northern came out a little flat and the Warriors, fresh off a five-game wake-up call against the University of Great Falls on Friday, came out strong.
Northern played Lewis Clark even early in the first game. The Skylights tied the game at 18 on an Emmy Olson ace. But the Warriors' Jennifer Covelli served a pair of aces and Nicole Welfel had four kills as Lewis-Clark retook the lead and the game.
The Warriors made quick work of the second game. A Covelli ace opened the scoring and Lewis-Clark never looked back.
The third game started much like the second game ended. The Warriors jumped out to a 13-4 lead. The Skylights rallied thanks to the inspired play of Jasmine Mitchell.
Mitchell had three kills and a pair of stuff blocks while Watkins added a kill and an ace to tie the game at 21. However, the Skylights could not take the lead. Lewis-Clark went on 9-4 run to close out the game and the match.
It was a frustrating loss for Handley, who felt Lewis-Clark was a team they should beat. Her team was still plagued by tentativeness in its serve-receive game and passing and the players struggled with their blocking as well.
"Lewis and Clark ran a very fast offense," Handley said. "Our inexperience in the middle showed. We were a half-second late getting our blocks."
Even more frustrating was her team's intensity, which seemed to appear only when the Skylights got behind in the match.
"We need to play with that intensity, that emotion from the beginning," Handley said. "They can't wait until we're behind to do that. We scratch, claw and dig ourselves back into matches but we don't have that killer instinct to finish it."
Handley knows that her team is still in a rebuilding process with only two experienced returning players, but that doesn't mean that it can't win now, especially at home.
"They go out of town and they play so hard," Handley said. "And when they get in front of the home crowd they are just flat."
She hopes her team can find that confidence and swagger that gives them the mentality of expecting to win rather than hoping to win.
Northern will return to the court on Wednesday as the team hosts the University of Great Falls in Frontier Conference action.