It’s hard to imagine the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team playing better than the Skylights did against Lewis-Clark State last Friday night. And it’s difficult to imagine the Skylights capturing a bigger win than the one they earned over the Warriors at home last weekend.
But those are exactly the types of things Northern will try to accomplish on the road this weekend, and first up is a huge Frontier Confe
rence rivalry match with the University of Great Falls Argos tonight in Great Falls. Northern (6-1, 12-9) will also turn right around for a rematch with the Warriors Saturday afternoon in Lewiston, Idaho. The road trip is part of a tough three-game stretch in which the Skylights also have a rematch with the Argos next Friday night in Havre.
“We’ve discussed at length how important this weekend is for us,” Northern head coach Bill Huebsch said. “We have a great opportunity to really go out and solidify what we did against LC last weekend, and that’s by beating two really good teams at their homes. It’s not going to be easy, in fact it’s going to be a huge challenge. But that win over Lewis-Clark State last weekend gives out kids a lot of confidence going into these next two matches.”
Tonight’s tilt with the Argos (3-4, 12-9) isn’t just a match between two bitter rivals, it’s also a matchup between two of the top offensive teams in the Frontier.
UGF has been up and down this season, but star hitter Kelsey Van Uden (6-3) has been nothing but up. She has racked up a Frontier-best 297 kills on the season is a leading candidate for NAIA Player of the Year this point. Van Uden also excellent when she’s in the back row and is a prime concern for the Skylights tonight.
“She’s (Van Uden) a great talent,” Huebsch said. “She’s already an all-american and she’s having a tremendous season. She can really make a difference for them wherever she’s at. And I don’t think you can really shut a player like that completely down.
“So we have to be concerned with her wherever she is,” he added. “But we also have to be patient and poised and try our best to move things around and force them to beat us through other players. They do have some talent around her and they are a very athletic and long team. But she gets a high percentage of the opportunities, so we need to do our best to take some of that away from her.”
Interestingly, neither team is flying blind tonight, though it’s the first conference meeting of the year between the two schools. Northern and UGF met back in August in Great Falls with the Argos winning in three sets. So while they are familiar with each other, the Skylights and Argos have also changed dramatically, and both teams are playing well coming in.
UGF gets good production in the middle from 6-5 Rebecca Kershner, who has totaled 65 blocks on the season. And while Van Uden is the focal point of the offense, 6-1 right side hitter Alyssa McEwan is a capable player as well.
Meanwhile, the Skylights are coming off perhaps the biggest win the program has experienced in a long, long time, after they took care of then No. 24 LC State in five sets last Friday. And with confidence and a tremendous lineup, UGF has plenty to worry about tonight.
Abby Nicholas leads the Skylights and is third in the Frontier with 221 kills. She’s also fourth in the league with 66 blocks and she’s currently fifth in hitting percentage. Hillary Isleifson is having a big senior season as well. She’s currently 10th in the conference with 166 kills, while Joni Nagy has 132. Nagy also leads the league with 30 aces, while junior libero Holly Cartwright is third in the league with 310 digs. As a team, the Skylights lead the Frontier with 121 aces, while they are third in both kills and hitting percentage.
“We are a little familiar with each other because of that match back in August,” Huebsch said. “But I also think both teams are dramatically different at this point. We’ve changed our lineup around since then and so have they. So I don’t really think that match means a lot going into this one.
“What we know is that we have to play at a very high level down there in order to win,” Huebsch added. “We have to play even better than we did last week. The challenges are still the same for us. We have to serve tough and block really well. When we do those two things at a high level, good things happen for us. When we don’t bad things happen. So in both matches this weekend, that’s the main goal, to consistently keep doing the things we’ve been doing and keep getting better.”
And not only will the Skylights need to be on top of their game in tonight’s hostile environment, but they will have to be even better in what should be the most hostile environment they play in all season Saturday at LC State. The No. 25 Warriors are still tied with Northern for first place in the conference standings, and they’ll no doubt be looking for revenge in Lewiston.
“We fully expect that they (Warriors) will be at their very best against us,” Huebsch said. “We know it’s going to take a heck of an effort to go down and win on their home floor because I’m sure they’ll be very enthusiastic about playing us a week after we beat them up here.
“So not only Saturday, but in both matches on the road this weekend, we have to continue to be very composed and patient, like we seem to do so well at home,” he added. “We have a great opportunity to really back up what we’ve done at home this season. We know it’s not going to be easy and we know how good both teams are. But we are playing with a lot of confidence right now, and we feel like, if we play our best, we can play with anybody, even on the road.”
Tonight’s match between Northern and UGF will get underway at 7 at the McLaughlin Center in Great Falls. Saturday’s match at LC State will begin at 2 p.m. Both matches can be seen via the internet by going to www.msun.edu/athletics.