By Ryan Divish
It's a pretty simple equation for the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team. If the Skylights' serve-receive game is on and they're playing aggressively, then everything works. The passes are there, the sets are crisp, the kills are plentiful and they usually win. If it's not, well, Northern's two-match losing streak is a direct result of poor serve-receiving.
It's no secret what head coach Lisa Handley has had her team working on in preparation for tonight's match against Rocky Mountain College and Saturday's match against Carroll College.
"We've worked on it all week," said sophomore setter Hannah Nutting. "We always work on serve-receive."
Northern's offense is predicated on getting that initial good pass off the opponents' serve.
"It's such a key because Hannah is a young setter," Handley said. "She needs good passes to give her confidence and, in turn, the outside hitters need her good sets to gain confidence."
Part of Northern's serve-receive problem has been tentativeness on taking the serve. It needs to be the opposite. The coach wants her team to be aggressive, instead of backing away. And even more troubling to Handley is that her team seems to be even more tentative at home.
"At home we quiet up," Nutting said. "We play not to make mistakes. We definitely feel some pressure because everyone knows we have talent."
Handley admits that her youthful team is susceptible to some nerves playing in front of family and friends. But they're putting way too much pressure on themselves.
"We need to relax and have some fun," Handley said. "We play well when we're having fun, but when we put too much pressure on ourselves, we don't play well."
Handley, who was an assistant coach at Rocky, hopes that the budding rivalry between her old school and Northern will help the girls come out aggressive.
"They'll be ready," Handley said. "They've got a little rivalry going with them."
Northern's match against Rocky earlier this season has only fueled the rivalry. The two teams met at the tournament Rocky hosted. Northern handled Rocky early, winning the first two games relatively easily. However, Rocky battled back and won three straight games to win the match.
"Rocky came out swinging after the first two games," Handley said. "They beat us as badly in the last three games as we beat them in the first two."
Nutting was more blunt in describing the match.
"The cold, hard truth is that we just couldn't finish," Nutting said. "It's that simple."
The Skylights have a disturbing habit of playing harder when they're behind. However, neither Rocky nor Carroll are teams you want to allow to jump out ahead early.
Rocky, 2-3 in conference and 10-5 overall, is led by senior Libby Torma, who earned Frontier Conference player of the week honors. Torma is joined by sophomore Tiffani Bauer up front, while setter Tess Morrison is an all-conference performer.
"Rocky has so many weapons," Handley said. "They probably have the best athletes in the conference."
If Rocky is tough, Carroll may be tougher. The Fighting Saints, 4-1 in conference, were picked to win the conference. While they struggled at times early this season, the Saints are playing solidly as of late.
Carroll is led by outside hitter Mary Lester, who is a CMR grad. Lester had an impressive 28 kills and 18 digs in her last match. Carroll also has a solid middle in Krista Heavirland and all-conference setter Natalie Conroy.
The Skylight match against Rocky is slated for 7 p.m. tonight at the MSU-N gymnasium. Saturday's match against Carroll is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. as part of Northern's alumni and homecoming celebration and will be played following the Skylights Basketball Alumni game.