By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
After two weeks of summer practice and the first scrimmage, one thing is certain for the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team - it can't afford to not play aggressively.
Not in this weekend's Skylight invitational, not for a match, not for game, not for a single play because, with their combination of youth and lack of playing time together and the tough teams in the Frontier Conference, the Skylights can't expect to win games without playing all out, all the time.
"We have some great athletes this year," said Skylights head coach Lisa Handley before Wednesday night's Maroon-Gold scrimmage. "We just need the reps and experience."
Following the scrimmage, Handley also saw one other problem - tentativeness. The first game had little, if any pace or rhythm, because her players looked tighter than the volleyball net.
"We started very slow," Handley said. "Our players were afraid to swing. You could see there were some nerves, they didn't want to swing and make mistakes."
But it was something Handley expected. After all, there were, at any given time, at least seven freshman on the floor. Nervousness in the first college game, scrimmage or not, is always expected.
"We're really young," said senior co-captain Tanja Bruski. "There were a lot of freshman out on the floor and we started out slow. After awhile, we started to play more aggressively. Everyone just needed to play a few points."
After a few long rallies in the first game, a couple booming kills from outside hitters Lindsay Garcia and Jasmine Mitchell and some solid play from Bruski and fellow co-captain Mitsu (Frazier) Phillips, the Skylights settled into an intense scrimmage that featured stellar defense and glimpses of the athleticism Handley knows her team possesses.
"Once our older girls stepped up and started swinging," Handley said. "Everybody started loosening up, we started to play like we can. People got to see how tough our defense is going to be. They weren't letting a lot of balls drop. The intensity was there. It has to be that way all the time, we can't ever let up."
Indeed, in comparison to years past, the Skylights possess a vigor on the defensive side of the floor not there before. Handley credits it to many things, including an increased emphasis in practice and a new face at a new position.
NAIA volleyball introduced the libero position last year and Northern is capitalizing on it this year. The libero is a defensive-only player that can be subbed in at any time for any player playing in the back row. Last season, Handley didn't have a player that really fit in the role. One of her goals for recruiting this season was to find a libero and it appears she has.
Freshman Nicole Kruse of Huntley Project has stepped in as the libero and excelled. It's something that Handley believes will be important this season.
"She's fun to watch," Handley said. "She's all over the place. She has this never-say-die attitude and never quits on any play. She's going to be a huge part of this team."
Kruse isn't the only youngster that will be on the floor for the Skylights. The Skylights will also have a freshman setter and another freshman at middle blocker.
Kelly Thorpe of Winnipeg, Manitoba will get the start at setter on Friday when the Skylights open their season. Thorpe is one of three young setters - redshirt freshman Christine Smith and freshman Renae Knerr - that are all trying to learn and play in the faster Northern offense.
"Kelly has stepped in and done a great job," Handley said. "She has just had more reps than the other girls because she's from Canada where they play year round. She's going to be our quarterback."
While Thorpe has solidified a starting spot, Handley is still trying to decide, out of trio of freshmen, who fill a spot in the middle.
Redshirt Tera O'Haire, former Havre High standout Jeanna McPherson and Brandi Snell are all vying for the spot. So far it's been pretty even and Handley will use this weekend as a measuring stick.
"Everyone is going to get to play a lot this weekend," Handley said. "We need to find out where everybody fits best and with who. This weekend will definitely be an experimental weekend."
But for all of the new faces on the floor, there will be plenty of familiar faces for the Skylights.
Bruski is the lone returner from last year's starting lineup. Gone is devastating hitter Tamecia Watkins, who finished up her eligibility. Starting middle Sarah Bruce left the team to focus on school, while setter Hannah Nutting transferred and outside hitter Brandy Pushka left school after the season ended last year.
Mitchell, who started several games last year, will redshirt this season along with freshman Alicia Mannin and most likely sophomore Melanie Walker.
Still, there are plenty of experienced returners. Sophomore Julie Henderson and senior Emmy Olson both started matches last season and played significantly.
Phillips, previously Mitsu Frazier, returns after missing two fall seasons to become a mother and a wife, and will hopefully return to her old form that made her one of the Skylights top players.
"Mitsu has played the last two springs with us," Handley said. "So it isn't like she hasn't played any. She led the team in kills and hitting percentage as a freshman, we're hoping she can play like that again."
Another player that benefited from spring season is Garcia, who transferred from Montana State last spring. After taking a year off from playing, Garcia used the spring to get the rust off her game and should be a factor.
Also returning is redshirt freshman and former Chester standout Katy Engstrom, who along with Garcia, led the scrimmage with 13 kills.
"We have a big team in terms of number of players," Handley said. "Our practice have been so much more intense because of it. They are all fighting for playing time and it will make us a better team in the long run."
In the long run, Handley believes her team should be right in the middle of the mix in the Frontier Conference race.
"I think this is going to be one of those years where anybody can beat anybody on any given night," Handley said. "I don't know if there is one totally dominant team out there. It's going to come down to who's ready to play that night."
If there is one dominant team, it may be the Montana Tech Orediggers, who recently upset second-ranked Dickinson State in a preseason tourney and cruised past UM-Western in a non-conference game. Tech returns everyone from last year and was bolstered with the addition of hitter Marrin Audet, who left the University of Montana volleyball team, to join the Diggers.
Western suffered wholesale losses, but Handley still believes the Bulldogs will be a scrappy bunch. Carroll College returns all-everything player Mary Lester and will be solid while Rocky Mountain College, who will play here in Havre this weekend, will also be very good.
"Westminster should also be better because they have a new coach, who is really gung-ho and brought her players in two weeks before everyone else," Handley said. "Great Falls will have their best team since Dick Scott's been there. He brought in some really good recruits."
So where do the Skylight fit in all of this?
"We have a really good chance to be a good team," Bruski said. "We just have to stay focused and play as hard as we can all the time."
Said Handley: "I think it's going to come down to their mental toughness. If we can stay mentally tough and play aggressive and hard all the time, we'll be hard to stop. But they can't afford to let down - not for a second.
The Skylight invitational will get underway on Friday at 11 a.m. and conclude on Saturday at 3 p.m. with the championship match.