By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
The only definite for the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team this weekend is the level of competition it will face.
The Skylights travel to Billings today for the Rocky Mountain College Invitational volleyball tournament, and like at last weekend's Skylights Invitational, Northern won't have an easy match all weekend.
Northern will face South Dakota Tech, Black Hills State and the University of Great Falls, all of whom, should be solid teams.
"We are going to face some really good teams this weekend," said head coach Lisa Handley. "South Dakota lost to Rocky Mountain College in five games and Black Hills State defeated Rocky in five games. Great Falls also had a big win last weekend and they will be much improved and then we have Montana Tech, who defeated Dickinson State which was ranked no. 2 in the nation. There is going to be some really good competition."
Good? It sounds more like great.
South Dakota Tech finished last season with a 17-19 record in a tough DAC-10 conference. The Hardrockers return nine players from last year's squad including NAIA honorable mention All-American Megan Barnes and defensive specialist/libero Stephanie Randall.
Barnes averaged 4.8 kills and 4.7 digs per game last year at outside hitter while Randall averaged 3 digs per game. However, the Hardrockers still have plenty of new faces and their coach, Doug Tabbert, has admitted it is a rebuilding year.
Black Hills State is also in the middle of a rebuilding process. The Hornets suffered through an 8-21 season last year, but seven players return including a trio of seniors that carry the team.
Outside hitter June Engler-Thompson led the Hornets in attacks, total kills and kills per game last season on her way to All-Dac-10 honors.
Joining Engler-Thompson are senior middle hitter Jen Shelton and setter/libero Alysha Schwarting. The duo were the top leaders in blocks and digs for the Hornets last season and will be looked to do so again this year.
But nothing has been more surprising that the emergence of the University of Great Falls as a factor in the Frontier Conference.
The Argos are currently 2-4 picking up a pair of wins over Eastern Oregon and University of Victoria to start the season. Handley knew coming in that the Argos would be a scrappy bunch.
"It's the best team Dick Scott's had since he's been there," Handley said. "They have a couple really talented new girls that we tried to recruit. They are going to be much tougher."
Northern gets to round out pool play with a real treat, taking on the red-hot Montana Tech Orediggers. Tech has burst out of the gate and showing that they may be the team to beat in the Frontier.
Tech holds a 5-5 record on the season, but that may be a little misleading. Two of Tech's wins were very impressive. The Diggers beat then no. 2-ranked Dickinson State in Dickinson at tournament and then strolled into Dillon and handled UM-Western in four games. As for the five losses, four of them came at the very prestigious Crown Plaza Labor Day Volleyball tournament in Irviine, Calif. Of the four losses, three of them came to teams ranked in the NAIA and NCAA top 25.
The Diggers return every player from last year's season in which they qualified for the NAIA regional tournament. Along with all that experience, Tech added a very talented newcomer to make it even stronger.
Marrin Audet transferred to Tech from the University of Montana volleyball team and has made an immediate impact. Audet brings a big hitting mentality to the defensive-minded Diggers.
To make things just a little tougher, the Skylights are still in the that feeling out process of finding the right lineup. Handley still hasn't determined her best lineup yet and she will try several different looks.
"We're still experimenting," Handley said. "It's going to take a little more time and matches to find out our best lineup and who works best with who."
Every player will play for the Skylights which means many of her true freshmen will be seeing significant playing time which could mean still more jitters even after playing four matches this season.
"I am sure the young girls will still be a little nervous because its our first road games," Handley said. "Rocky's a pretty quiet and big venue. It will be different for them."
It will be a homecoming for three Northern players. Senior Tanja Bruski hails from Billings while freshman Nicole Kruse of Huntley Project and Renae Knerr of Grass Range are from the area and will have large cheering sections.
A combination of nerves, unforced errors and unfamiliarity plagued the Skylights last weekend as they finished 1-4. Minus a couple of mistakes and their record could have easily been 4-1. Many of those mistakes can be corrected with a little work in practice and Handley was pleased with their reaction this week.
"We've had a great week of practice," she said. "They've come in every day fired up and ready to work on things we need to improve. I have been very happy with their willingness to work hard."