The Montana State University-Northern volleyball team opened the Frontier Conference season with a historic home win over Carroll College. That was back on Sept. 8 in Havre, and it was the start of a season of firsts for MSU-N.
But three months later, no one could have predicted just how close the Skylights would get to the biggest firsts of them all.
On Saturday night in Butte, the Skylights were one swing away from their first Frontier Conference championship since 1991 — twice. And they were oh so close to a berth in the NAIA national tournament.
But as great as the Skylights were all season long, and as great as they were in the Frontier tourney, knocking off Montana Tech on Friday and top-seeded Lewis-Clark State Saturday morning, the Frontier title proved to be just out of reach. The second-seeded Saints fought off Northern’s match points in the dramatic fifth set and beat the Skylights by scores of 25-15, 22-25, 17-25, 25-20 and 17-15.
The win clinched an NAIA tourney berth for Carroll, as well as the Frontier crown, while it brought a magical MSU-N season to a heartbreaking end.
“It’s bitter-sweet right now because the kids are hurting from this loss,” Northern head coach Bill Huebsch said. “But I told them after the match, they have nothing to hang their heads about. They’ve had a tremendous season, one in which we’ve accomplished so many great things. They played at a really high level all weekend long and they did everything they could do. We had two swings to win the conference championship, and in my opinion, you can’t ask for anything more than that.
“I know this will hurt for a little while,” he added . “But I told them that when they are able to reflect on this season, they will look back and be so proud of what they achieved.”
The Skylights have a mountain of things to be proud of from the past three-plus months, including the way they fought to the very end Saturday night against the Saints.
Northern shook off a sluggish first-set loss, and really got rolling, taking the next two sets from the Saints in impressive fashion. MSU-N also battled Carroll point-for-point in the fourth, before the Saints grabbed momentum at 20-19 and won the last five points.
“We didn’t play very well in the first set, but I was really proud of the way we responded,” Huebsch said. “I thought, in the next three sets, we played really well. Our serve-receive was outstanding, we passed the ball really well, and we played great defensively.
“We did seem to hit a wall at the end of the fourth set,” he continued. “But in the huddle before the fifth set, I told the kids, that’s over now and there’s nothing we can do about that. Let’s just go out and be the first to five points at a time. If we do that three times, we win the fifth set. We did that twice, but it just didn’t happen for us at the end.”
The Skylights did achieve their goals early in the fifth set. Northern got up on Carroll quickly, and at one point, led the Saints 9-5. But Carroll never went away, and the Saints caught the Skylights at 12-12. Northern fought right back and had a championship point at 14-13 and another at 15-14. But Carroll never wavered, and not only did the Saints fend off both match points, they found away to pull ahead and win the title in what was one of the most thrilling, and well-played Frontier title matches in a long, long time.
“Carroll played exceptionally well,” Huebsch said. “They played great defense and they never gave up. No matter how well we were playing, they kept battling back. It was a great match by both teams.
“And I am really proud of our kids for battling too,” he added. “Our kids did everything they could do to win, and it just didn’t happen. But they have nothing to be ashamed of. They played great and I’m just really proud of them for what they did this weekend.”
Playing in her final match of a brilliant MSU-N career, senior Hillary Isleifson totaled a match-high 24 kills, 16 digs and one ace. Abby Nicholas had 14 kills and match-high 31 digs, while Kelsey Williams had 12 kills, two blocks and 19 digs. Joni Nagy had 50 assists and 25 digs, while Holly Cartwright tallied 25 digs, and Victoria Polo added seven kills and two blocks. Carroll had 67 kills to Northern’s 66, while the Saints out-blocked the Skylights 15-8 in a match that couldn’t have gotten any closer.
“Again, I’m just really proud of the kids,” Huebsch said. “It hurts to see how much they were hurting after the match. But they have had a great season, they’ve worked so hard and done everything we’ve asked of them. And I’m just really proud of what they’ve done for this program this year.”
A great run
Northern reached Saturday night’s championship match in impressive fashion.
On Friday afternoon, the Skylights won their first tournament match in more than a decade by beating Montana Tech for the third time this season. MSU-N beat the fifth-seeded Orediggers on their home floor by scores of 25-19, 25-23, 23-25 and 25-22 in what was a hard-fought match.
In the win, Nicholas racked up 17 kills, 24 digs and three blocks. In a dominating performance, she also served up two aces. Isleifson chipped in with 15 kills and two blocks, while Williams totaled 12 kills and a solo block. As a team, MSU-N recorded 15 blocks, including a career-high six by Polo. Nagy added 46 assists in the impressive performance.
“Tech is a team who came in playing really well,” Huebsch said. “And it is very difficult to beat a team three times in one season. But we just got rolling against them in what was a really close match. Abby had a great match and everyone really stepped up and got that win.
“And that was one of our main goals this season,” he continued. “To finally not be one-and-out at the conference tournament. So I was really proud of the kids for accomplishing that against a really tough Montana Tech team.”
But the Skylights weren’t even close to being finished.
Next up was top-seeded LC State Saturday morning. And though Northern had beaten LCSC for the first time in eons earlier this season, doing it again was going to be a tall order. However, the Skylights proved they were up to the challenge, as they stunned the Warriors by scores of 25-22, 25-20, 19-25 and 25-23 to advance to the title match for the first time in 22 years.
“We just played at a really high level against LC,” Huebsch said. “We passed the ball so well, we blocked it well and we played great defense behind the block. It was so fun to watch those kids playing at such a high level.”
The Skylights hit .286 against one of the most dominant programs the Frontier has seen in the last decade. And they out-blocked the powerful Warriors 11-6. Haley Russell and Polo were a force at the net, combining for seven blocks, with Russell totaling four and Polo adding three. Nicholas and Isleifson each tallied 16 kills, while Williams added 11. Nagy had 46 assists and two aces, while Cartwright had 15 digs in what was one of Northern’s most important wins in decades.
“It was a great run,” Huebsch said. “We played about as well as we could have in those two wins over Tech and LC. Every single player who played really stepped up and played at an extremely high level. It was a lot of fun to watch. And I’m so proud of this team for going down there and playing so well at the most important time of the season.”
And it was a season the Skylights and their fans will never forget. Northern totaled 18 wins against 15 losses, went 10-6 in a loaded Frontier Conference, beat every team in the league at least once, while beating Tech three times and LCSC twice. And to top it all off, the Skylights came within one point of winning a coveted Frontier title, as well as going to the national tournament.
“Like I said, when we’re all able to step back and reflect on all of this, the kids will see just how special this season really was,” Huebsch said. “We had a lot of firsts for this program and this weekend was another big part of that.
“This team had an amazing season and one they can be really proud of,” he added. “And I think we’ve built some great momentum for the future. We’re going to miss the seniors a lot. They have been great for us. But we also have a great group of kids coming back and this weekend was a great experience and something that group can build on for next year. And I’m just really proud of this team and happy for them for everything they’ve achieved.”
Carroll def. MSU-Northern
25-15, 22-25, 17-25, 25-20, 17-15
CC — Kills: 67 (Elli Graff 14). Assists: 55 (Natalie Stewart 30). Aces: 3 (Three with one). Digs: 119 (Rebecca Sweeney 28). Blocks: 20 (Graff 9).
MSU-N — Kills: 66 (Hillary Isleifson 24). Assists: 58 (Joni Nagy 50). Aces: 2 (Kelsey Williams 2). Digs: 123 (Abby Nicholas 31). Blocks: 10 (Nicholas 3, Haley Russell 3).
MSU-Northern def. L-C State
25-22, 25-20, 19-25, 25-23
LCSC — Kills: 68 (Brianne Brown 20). Assists: 61 (Nevena Dragovic 52). Aces: 2 (Niurka Toribio, Kaylee Rector). Digs: 76 (Rector 33). Blocks: 6 (Chelsea Strong 3).
MSU-N — Kills: 57 (Hillary Isleifson 16). Assists: 48 (Joni Nagy 46). Aces: 5 (Nagy 2). Digs: 62 (Holly Cartwright 15). Blocks: 11 (Haley Russell 4).
MSU-Northern def. Montana Tech
25-19, 25-23, 23-25, 25-22
Kills – MSU-N 52 (Abby Nicholas 17, Hilary Isleifson 15, Kelsey Williams 12, Victoria Polo 8), Tech 59 (Sydney Norris 20, Shersteen Cline 18, Korey Krumm 12, Mikayla Sullivan 7, Lacey Phelan 2); Aces – MSU-N 2 (Joni Nagy 1, Holly Cartwright 1), Tech 3 (Kimmy Kavran 1, Cline 1, Phelan 1); Blocks –MSU-N 15 (Polo 6.5, Nicholas 4, Isleifson 2, Hailey Russell 1.5, Nagy 1), Tech 8 (Norris 3, Krumm 3, Phelan 2); Assists – MSU-N 49 (Nagy 46, Nicholas 2, Williams 1), Tech 58 (Alison Lunde 45, Jesse Bowden 10, Kavran 2, Phelan 1); Digs – MSU-N 85 (Nicholas 24, Williams 22, Cartwright 18, Nagy 13, Isleifson 6, Polo 1, Russell 1), Tech 87 (Kavran 27, Phelan 21, Norris 9, Kristin King 8, Lunde 8, Sullivan 5, Cline 5, Bowden 2, Krumm 2).