HELENA — In this season of Frontier Conference volleyball, there’s been tremendous ups and downs. It’s truly been a roller coaster of a ride.
And over the weekend, the Montana State University-Northern Skylights saw that fact first hand.
The Skylights endured a thrilling and gutsy five-set win over Montana Tech Friday night in Butte, then found themselves on the other end of the spectrum, losing a heart-breaking, four-set match to Carroll College Saturday night in Helena.
“Normally, you’re pretty happy with a split on the road because this league is just so tough,” Northern head coach Bill Huebsch said. “But with the way we lost at Carroll, it’s pretty disappointing. We felt like we had control of that match, and it got away from us. So in a way, a great opportunity got away from us on Saturday night.
“Still, we have to be proud of what we did at Tech on Friday night,” he added. “Our kids showed a tremendous amount of heart to hang in there and get that win. And luckily, with that win, and a couple of upsets this weekend, we didn’t really take a major step back. We’re still in pretty good shape.”
Northern is getting used to five-set thrillers and Friday night’s battle in Butte was all of that.
The Skylights and Orediggers waged an epic first set, one in which Tech finally prevailed 35-33. From there, the Skylights romped to a 25-15 win, but found themselves down 2-1 after Tech took the third set 25-20. Northern’s toughness shined through though, as the Skylights staved off elimination by winning the fourth set 25-21, then finished a dramatic fifth set with a 15-13 win.
“What can you say, it was a great match,” Huebsch said. “Tech has been playing really well and with a lot of confidence. That first set was pretty intense and the match just stayed that way throughout. But our kids really hung in there. They never panicked and we came up with some big points when we really needed them. It was a great win for us.”
Against the Diggers’ Abby Nicholas had 20 of Northern’s 60 kills. She and Haley Russell also combined for 8.5 blocks. Hillary Isleifson added 17 kills and 12 digs and Kelsey Williams chipped in with 13 kills and two aces, while Holly Cartwright had 22 digs.
And with a win in hand, the Skylights went to Helena on Saturday night seeking a rare season sweep over the Fighting Saints, who Northern was tied with for second place in the Frontier Standings.
And for a time, MSU-N liked like a sweep over Carroll was possible.
After dropping the first set 25-19, the Skylights rallied from deficits of 8-4 and 16-10 in the second to win 27-25. Isleifson came up with huge kills late in the set and Nicholas was there with crucial blocks during a 5-0 run late in the set.
And the second-set win seemed to give the Skylights all the momentum they needed. Northern ripped of a 9-0 run to lead 12-5 early in the third set, then kept on going, and led 21-12 later on. But Carroll’s defense came to life at that point. The Saints extended rallies and chipped away at the lead until it was gone, tied at 23-23. From there, MSU-N had three set points, but could never get the ball to hit the floor, and Carroll completed the dramatic comeback with a block by Ellie Graff to win 28-26. And that was all the momentum the Saints needed as they steam-rolled the Skylights in the fourth set, 25-16.
“It’s hard to really explain it,” Huebsch said. “I didn’t think we played that well in the first set, but in the second, we got our block going and I thought we passed the ball well. We were able to win that set and then we had the momentum. And we played great volleyball for much of that third set, but we just couldn’t finish it. And that’s really disappointing because we’re a veteran team and this late in the season, you have to finish when you have the opportunities and we didn’t do that.
“And don’t take anything away from Carroll,” he added. “Because they didn’t give up on that set. Even when we were up big, they just kept attacking and kept fighting. They played great.”
The Skylights had 57 kills against the Saints with Nicholas totaling 16. Isleifson added 15 and Williams had 14. Northern got out-blocked by Carroll 13-8, with Nicholas totaling three for the Skylights. Joni Nagy had 45 assists, while Cartwright had 32 and Williams added 25 of MSU-N’s 122 digs. The Saints had 128 digs with Catie Hanser totaling a match-high 40.
“Volleyball is such a momentum sport,” Huebsch said. “And I felt like we had it, then didn’t do enough to keep it. That’s really disappointing because we had a great chance to win a big match on the road.
“Still, we did get a split thanks to our great effort on Friday night in Butte,” he continued. “And at the end of the day, you have to take a split on the road in this league because it’s so hard to ever win on the road.”
MSU-N is now 7-5 in the Frontier and in a third-place tie with Great Falls with four matches left. The Skylights are 13-13 overall and will host UM-Western Thursday night at the Armory Gymnasium. Northern’s final home match of the season is set for this Saturday against Westminster College.
MSU Northern def. Montana Tech
33-35, 25-15, 20-25, 25-21, 15-13
MSU-Northern — Kills: 63 (Abby Nicholas 20). Assists: 54 (Joni Nagy 51). Aces: 4 (Kelsey Williams 2). Digs: 102 (Holly Cartwright 31). Blocks: 12 (Haley Russell 4.5, Nicholas 4).
Montana Tech — Kills: 74 (Shersteen Cline 23). Assists: 69 (Alison Lunde 52). Aces: 3 (Lunde 2). Digs: 100 (Kimmy Kavran 28). Blocks: 8 (Korey Krumm 3).
Carroll def. MSU-Northern
25-19, 25-27, 28-26, 25-16
Kills – MSU-N 57 (Abby Nicholas 16, Hillary Isleifson 15, Kelsey Williams 14), CC 61 (Kathleen Mulligan 15, Elli Graff 11, Rebecca Sweeney 10); Assists – MSU-N 52 (Joni Nagy 45), CC 56 (Natalie Stewart 28, Emily Burk 20); Blocks – MSU-N 8 (Isleifson 3), CC 13 (Mo Ritter 5.5, Graff 3, Sweeney 3); Digs – MSU-N 122 (Holly Cartwright 32, Williams 25), CC 128 (Catie Hanser 40, Sweeney 27); Aces – MSU-N 2, CC 3 (Sweeney 2).