When the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team finished off the Rocky Mountain College Battlin’ Bears last Friday night in the Armory Gymnasium, it was certainly a big moment for an MSU-N program that had won just eight conference matches combined in 2009 and 2010.
But the Skylights have no intentions of letting the regular season Frontier Conference championship they earned with that four-set win over Rocky be the crowning moment in what has been the most dominant season by a Frontier team in four years.
Instead, the Skylights now shift gears, knowing they are just three matches away from the coveted Frontier Conference trophy, and the NAIA national tournament. The No. 24 Skylights (24-5) open play in the Frontier tournament Friday at noon against either No. 9 seed Dickinson State or No. 8 seed UM-Western. The 2013 Frontier tourney begins tonight and runs through Saturday night at UGF’s McLaughlin Center in Great Falls.
“We know we can beat anybody in our conference now,” Northern senior Abby Nicholas said after Friday night’s victory against RMC. “So we have to focus on just playing one match at a time. We don’t want this to be the end. We want to take this all the way.”
The Skylights, who lost just once in 16 Frontier matches this season, nearly took it all the way as the No. 4 seed a year ago. In the 2012 Frontier tournament in Butte, Northern knocked off top-seeded Lewis-Clark State in the semifinals, and lost in a five-set marathon to Carroll College in the championship match. That night last November has been on MSU-N’s mind all season long, but the Skylights have remained focused on the task at hand this year, and while they are heavy favorites to win the Frontier title this weekend, Northern head coach Bill Huebsch knows his Skylights can’t afford to get ahead of themselves.
“I know they are cliché’s,” Huebsch said. “But right now it’s a brand new season and everybody is 0-0 again. And we also know you can’t afford to look past anybody in this league. If you do that, you’ll get beat. I think we’ve done a really good job of focusing on every opponent this season. And we have to continue to do that in this tournament. We won’t look past anyone. We’ll just take it one match at a time. One set at a time, even one point at a time.”
As for Northern’s potential opponents on the road to the Frontier championship, the Skylights swept DSU twice this season, and they dropped one set in two wins over UM-Western. If MSU-N gets past the quarterfinals, the Skylights will see either fourth-seeded Westminster or fifth-seeded Carroll in the semifinals Saturday morning. MSU-N beat Carroll in four sets in Havre and five sets in Helena this season, while the Griffins were the only team to beat Northern in conference play. MSU-N beat Westminster in the three-game sweep in Havre, but fell in five sets to the Griffins earlier this month in Salt Lake City. A win in the semis would put Northern in the title bout for the second straight season, likely against either second-seeded RMC or third-seeded Lewis-Clark State, two teams Northern beat twice this fall.
“Once that play-in match is over, we’ll be able to get a better idea of what we have to do on Friday,” Huebsch said. “If it’s Western, we know that they will be ready for us. They have been competitive all season long, and they certainly played us tough both times we faced them. But whoever we play, we know we’ll have to play well because at this point in the season, everybody takes it up a notch.”
That everybody includes Northern. And if the Skylights are in high gear, they’ve proven nearly impossible to stop. Nicholas leads the Frontier and is ninth nationally with 487 kills. She is also fourth in the league in hitting percentage, to go along with being 10th in blocks with 74 and 20th in digs with 298. Fellow senior Kelsey Williams is second in total kills with 431, while she too has had an excellent all-around season. She has 39 aces, which is fourth in the league, and 303 digs, which is 13th.
Offensively, Northern has a lot of firepower. Joni Nagy has had a remarkable year setting, totaling 1,234 assists to go along with 304 digs defensively. Junior Dayna Jensen has come on strong, too, tallying 237 kills, which is 17th in the league. As a team, Northern leads the Frontier by a mile in kills, kills per set and hitting percentage, while on defense, Erin Jensen has 59 blocks, senior libero Holly Cartwright has amassed 472 digs and freshman defensive specialist Sydney Stolearcius has 298 digs.
But as talented as the Skylights are, as they bring record-setting numbers into this weekend’s tournament, the game plan is simple, and it’s been that way all season long. Northern has to be sharp and focused, and the Skylights have to win the little battles within the matches. If the Skylights do that, they will be very hard to bring down.
“We have to be focused, we have to play our game and control the things we can control,” Huebsch said. “I’ve always said, in this tournament, where it’s lose one and you’re done, the team that eliminates errors, the team that plays the best team defense and the team that wins the serve-receive battle will be the team that wins this tournament. And those things have been keys for us all season long, and they will be again this weekend.”
Northern does do all those things well, but the Skylights also have a few other factors on their side: momentum and confidence. MSU-N has lost just once since Aug. 26, and the success the Skylights have had through the course of conference play has given them the confidence they need to know they can win a Frontier championship, something they came so close to doing a year ago.
This tournament has been a goal for the Skylights all season long, and nothing short of a chance to play in the national tournament hangs in the balance. MSU-N probably isn’t ranked high enough to get an at-large berth should the Skylights lose this weekend in Great Falls.
“Confidence, and belief in yourself and your abilities is a big thing,” Huebsch said. “I know this team has that because they’ve already achieved so many great things over the last two seasons. But what I really like is that this team is still playing with that sense of urgency, even with all they’ve done this season. They are practicing and playing as if they haven’t achieved anything yet. I think that loss at Westminster kind of grounded them a little, and they don’t want to feel that way again. So the last couple of weeks, practices have been really good.
“So I’m excited to see what happens this weekend,” he added. “I’m excited to get back on the court and get going. I’m excited to see us play in this tournament, and I know the girls certainly don’t want this great ride to end this weekend.”
Northern’s match with either DSU or UM-Western will start at noon. Friday in the McLaughlin Center in Great Falls. With a win, the Skylights would play at 11 a.m. Saturday. The Frontier championship match is set for 7 p.m. Saturday night. The tournament winner will play in the first round of the NAIA national tournament on Nov. 23.