By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
GREAT FALLS - Montana State University-Northern volleyball coach Lisa Handley isn't a chemist. But she would happily take all of the intensity, emotion and aggression her team played with Wednesday night and bottle it up for future use.
The Skylights played perhaps their best match of the season in defeating the University of Great Falls Argos 30-20, 23-30, 30-18, 30-26 at the McLaughlin Center on the UGF campus.
"That's a big win for us," Handley said. "Great Falls is very tough to beat on their home court. But they knew this was a match we needed to have and they played like it."
Indeed, the intensity on the floor had a postseason atmosphere despite it being each team's third conference match. With both teams evenly matched in terms of talent and disdain for each other, neither wanted to walk out without that first win in the conference.
"There was a lot of animosity before the match even started," said senior Mitsu Phillips. "But this was a match we couldn't afford to lose. We had the attitude that we weren't going to walk out of here without a win."
Animosity may be putting it politely. It would be kind of like saying there was some spirited banter between the two teams. In truth, it was straight trash talkin'.
And like the match, the Skylights won that battle as well.
"It was fun for them," Handley said of her team. "The talkin' started and it really got them going and playing hard and aggressive. I wish more people would do that to us all the time. We seem to play better."
Phillips admitted she was talking on the floor, but her play did even more talking.
The senior outside hitter made the most of her final game in the McLaughlin Center and possibly in her hometown of Great Falls.
Phillips and fellow senior Tanja Bruski have seen the blossoming of the rivalry between Northern and UGF and they played accordingly.
Northern took game one with relative ease as Bruski, Lindsay Garcia and Tera O'Haire controlled the net. Bruski served up a pair of aces sandwiched in between a Garcia kill to pull away early. Bruski and O'Haire punctuated the game with an emphatic stuff block to win 30-20.
In game two, everything that Northern did right in game one stopped. The Skylights grabbed an early 10-5 lead only to watch it disappear. UGF fought its way back into the game and Northern was only too kind to cooperate.
"Our passing completely broke down in game two," Handley said.
UGF went on an 8-2 run to tie the game at 17. Northern's offense looked out of sync with poor passes leading to tough sets, which resulted in hitting errors. The Argos grabbed a 22-20 lead and never looked back. Mellany Dochylos and Stephanie Smith combined for five kills in the final eight points to take game two, 30-23.
In the short intermission between games two and three, Handley reminded her team about the need for solid passing to get the entire offense going.
"I might not have said it quite that way," Handley said. "But they knew our passing had to get better."
And the Skylights responded. Northern roared to the lead in game three as Jeanna McPherson's kill on a quick set gave them a 13-5 lead. Still, the pesky Argos wouldn't roll over and quit. They fought back to within 3 points at 14-11 behind kills from Dochylos and Smith.
But the Skylight seniors ended the rally right there. With O'Haire serving, Northern rattled off seven unanswered points as Phillips and Bruski alternated kills for five consecutive points. An ace by O'Haire give Northern a 10-point lead at 21-11.
"Our seniors have to get it done in matches like that and they did," Handley said. "Kelly (Thorpe) had to trust our seniors. She kept getting them the ball and they produced. Kelly set her smartest game of the season."
The Skylights continued to roll as Garcia got into the fray. With Bruski and McPherson getting some kills in the middle, the outside opened up even more and Garcia capitalized, picking up a pair of emphatic kills. But game three belonged to the seniors and Phillips finished it off with a soft tip in front of a pair of diving Argos to take the game 30-18.
If the Skylights thought UGF was going to concede the match being down 2-1, they found out quickly that wasn't the case. After being tight early, Northern pulled away as cross-court kills from Phillips built 5-point leads. A huge stuff block from McPherson on a back-row spike from Dochylos gave the Skylights their biggest lead at 26-19. UGF answered as Ashley Zerr-Smith served up three aces in a row as the Argos rolled up four consecutive points.
A timeout from Handley settled her team down, and two kills from Phillips and a soft kill from Bruski ended the match.
Phillips finished with a team-high 18 kills while Garcia finished with 14. Thorpe dished out 41 assists while Nicole Kruse had 23 digs.
Smith led UGF with 18 kills and 11 digs while Dochylos added 7 kills and 15 digs.
"We have great weapons when we pass," Handley said. "And we passed in every game but game two. It was our most complete game of the season. It's close to our game against Rocky, but our serving was better tonight. This is the type of game we need to play every night. It was a total team effort."
Of course every night won't be in Great Falls against the Argos, which made Phillips a little nostalgic.
"It felt really good to play one last time here," Phillips said. "I really appreciated having family and friends here to support us."
As for the lack of love between the two teams, Phillips was diplomatic.
"There was a lot of commotion on the floor," she said. "But no matter what's said, we want to leave it on the court."
There is one thing that Handley doesn't want to leave on the court and that's the feeling her team had after winning.
"I hope they remember what this feels like, the feeling of winning," Handley said. "They should want this feeling every night."
MSU-Northern def. University of Great Falls
30-20, 23-30, 30-18, 30-25
UGF - Kills 42 (Stephanie Smith 18, Mellany Dochylos 7), Assists 35 (Ashley Zerr-Smith 33), Aces 4 (Zerr-Smith 3), Digs 55 (Dochylos 15, Smith 11), Blocks 4 (Smith 2).
MSUN - Kills 52 (Mitsu Phillips 18, Lindsay Garcia 14), Assists 44 (Kelly Thorpe 41), Aces 11 (Tanja Bruski 5, Emmy Olson 2, Tera O'Haire 2), Digs 74 (Nicole Kruse 23, Brandi Snell 9), Blocks 9 (Bruski 3).