The Montana State University-Northern volleyball team just completed the best regular season the program has seen in a decade.
But the Skylights aren’t interested in hanging their hat on that alone. Northern doesn’t want to just be satisfied with great achievements like finishing in a tie for third place in the tough Frontier Conference, or with winning 10 conference matches, or with beating every team in the league at least once.
Those are all great milestones, but Northern wants more.
The Skylights (16-14) are looking to keep their season of firsts going when they take on the Montana Tech Orediggers in the opening round of the Frontier Conference Tournament Friday afternoon in Butte. And adding to the season of firsts would be a win in the Frontier tourney, something Northern hasn’t done since 2005.
“It’s been a great season and this team has accomplished a lot of great things already,” said MSU-N head coach Bill Huebsch, who, in his fourth season at the helm, has guided the Skylights to a higher win total each and every year. “I’m really proud of these girls and really proud of them for what they’ve done this year.
“It’s been a season of firsts for us, but we’re also hoping we’re not done,” he continued. “Winning a match at the conference tournament is something this program hasn’t done in a while, and we’d like to do that and see how far we can take it. We know it’s going to be tough, but I think we’re going into the tournament playing well and with a lot of confidence.”
The Orediggers (18-10) will be MSU-N’s first-round opponent, and to win, the Skylights will have to achieve even more great things. Tech will be playing on its home floor, in front of its home fans, and not only that, but the Skylights will have to beat the Diggers’ for a third time this season. And those are uphill challenges according to Huebsch.
“It’s never easy to beat a team three times in a row,” Huebsch said. “It just seems like, with volleyball being such a momentum sport, that it’s really hard to do that. And the fact Tech will be playing at home, in front of their fans, that won’t make this easy.”
The Skylights are seeded fourth in the tournament while Tech is the fifth seed, and the Diggers’ come in as one of the hottest teams in the tournament. The Diggers’ finished 8-8 in conference play, and they won four of their last six matches. However, the Skylights swept Tech during the regular season, winning in three sets in Havre in September, then surviving in five sets last month in Butte.
“I think, winning both times gives us the confidence to know we can do it again,” Huebsch said. “But again, it’s going to be difficult. Tech is playing very well right now and they are a very tough defensive team which always makes it a little more difficult.”
Indeed. Tech is second in the Frontier in total digs, and libero Kimmy Kavran is leading the NAIA with 749 digs. But the Diggers’ have surged offensively as of late, and they lead the Frontier in hitting percentage, with Korey Krumm and Mikayla Sullivan 1-2 in the league in that category. Big Sandy native Shersteen Cline is also second in the Frontier with 358 kills, while setter Allison Lunde leads the conference in assists with 1,097.
Northern will counter Tech with its attackers and its serving. Abby Nicholas is third in the Frontier with 332 kills to go along with 98 blocks. Hillary Isleifson is seventh in kills with 272 and Kelsey Williams is 11th with 252. During the regular season, the Skylights finished with 159 aces, with setter Joni Nagy totaling 41 and Williams 35.
But as touch as Northern is on offense and from the service line, the Skylights will also have to play good defense, both at the net and in the back row to get by the scrappy Orediggers. Holly Cartwright is third in the Frontier with 494 digs, while the continued strong blocking of Victoria Polo and Haley Russell will be key on Friday afternoon.
“At this point, neither us or Tech is going to change much,” Huebsch said. “We have to go out and be very consistent with our serve-receive and our serve, we have to have our block do well and we have to terminate the ball when we get chances. Those things are always going to be crucial for us. And against Tech, we have to stay patient. They are going to dig up a lot of balls and extend rallies and we can’t get frustrated by that.”
The Frontier tourney is a one-and-done format, so if the Skylights win, they’ll advance to Saturday morning’s semifinal round. Lewis-Clark State (15-9) is the top seed and will await the winner of the play-in match between No. 9 Dickinson State (2-20) and No. 8 UM-Western (10-18). The winner of that quarterfinal match will play either the Skylights or Orediggers in the semifinals. On the other side of the bracket, No. 2 seeded Carroll College (21-9) faces No. 7 Westminster (14-12) and No. 3 Great Falls (19-11) takes on No. 6 Rocky Mountain College (13-17). The winner’s of those two matchups will face off in Saturday’s second semifinal. The semifinal winners will meet in the championship match Saturday night with a berth in the NAIA national tournament at stake.
And though the Skylights would love to be a part of the national tourney, they are solely focused on beating Tech for a third time in 2012 and moving on. In a season of firsts, Northern would at least like to add that to what has already been an incredible season.
“I think we played well last Saturday at Dickinson State,” Huebsch said. “So hopefully, that gave us the momentum we needed going into the tournament.
“I think we are a confident team right now and this tournament is pretty wide open,” he continued. “If we go down there and play our best volleyball, I like our chances on Friday night afternoon. Like I said, this team has achieved so much this season, but hopefully there’s more to do.”
Northern and Tech will square off at 2 p.m. Friday in Butte. Fans can watch the Skylights’ match, and all of the Frontier tourney online by going to www.frontierconference.com.