By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
It's strange to say that the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team is already facing must-win matches, just one match into the conference season. But for head coach Lisa Handley, the matches are must-win because she considers them "can-win" matches.
Northern will host UM-Western on Friday and Westminster on Saturday night in a pair of critical Frontier Conference matches. All conference matches are important, but these two have a little more meaning.
"These matches are must-win because they are matches we can win," Handley said. "These are two teams we are capable of beating, if we play up to our capabilities."
It's funny how that little word 'if' changes the entire meaning. Because that's the biggest question is if her team can play up to its capabilities, especially at home.
For whatever reason - nerves, distractions, fear of making mistakes - the Skylights don't seem to play well on their home floor. Something that has to change, according to Handley.
"For us it has almost been a disadvantage to play at home," Handley said. "We have to start focusing on the match and playing the other team. We can't be worried about who is in the stands watching and who isn't."
Indeed, because as Handley is quick to point out, if the Skylights fail to play the type of volleyball they've played in the last week, they will get beaten.
"We aren't underestimating either of these teams," Handley said. "We aren't in a position to underestimate anyone in our conference."
Especially in a conference where every match is a toss-up and every team can play like the best or the worst team in the conference depending on the given night.
UM-Western is the perfect example. The Bulldogs, 5-12 overall and 1-3 in conference play, picked up that lone league win by defeating Lewis-Clark State last Friday night in Dillon. LC came into that match ranked fourth in the region and playing solid volleyball.
"Western is a pretty young team like us, but beating LC shows that they are capable of beating anyone," Handley said.
The Bulldogs lost several players off of last year's regular season conference championship squad. Gone is do-everything athlete Katie Stokes, last year's Frontier Conference player of the year. Also gone is setter Annawyn Ballou, while starting middle hitter Amy White transferred to UM to enter pharmacy school.
That leaves Western a little inexperienced in some spots, but there are plenty of Smiths to fill the gap. Senior Kasey Smith was a second team all-conference, second team all-region performer last season. She is a force in the middle in both blocking and attacking.
Kasey Smith is joined by the Smith sisters (no relation to Kasey), Amy and Emily, who are solid all-around players. Emily joined Kasey as second team all-conference, all-region while sister Amy was the Bulldogs' libero. Also contributing heavily will be sophomore Katherine Sunwall, last year's conference freshman of the year. Sunwall led the conference in blocks per game last year and has gotten even better this year.
"They have very good in middles in Kasey and Katherine," Handley said. "We're going to try and slow them down and make their outside hitters beat us."
Former Havre High standout Amy Ranes has also seen some playing time for the Bulldogs this year as a true freshman.
While Handley has good idea about what Western will do, she has little idea what Westminster brings to the floor on Saturday night. The Griffins, 1-17 overall and 0-4 in conference, have new coach in Tasha Poduska and plenty of new faces that join her.
But because of their location, Handley has yet to see the Griffins play this season.
"Westminster is so unpredictable," Handley said. "I really don't what to expect. I know their outside hitters can get pretty hot and they also have a player that supposedly wasn't with them in the preseason."
What Handley does know is that Westminster is still a decent team as evidenced in a five-set loss to league powerhouse Montana Tech and that her team doesn't want to lose to them.
"We don't want to be their first conference win," Handley said. "That puts a little pressure on us. But I do know they are better than what their record shows."
Lack of a scouting report isn't really bothering Handley much because she would rather focus on what her team needs to do rather than what her opponents do.
"We have to pass well and get our middle hitters, Tanja (Bruski) and Jeanna (McPherson) or Tera (O'Haire), whoever is in there going and serve effectively," Handley said. "We have some weapons on the outside in Mitsu (Phillips) and Lindsay (Garcia), but if we can't get our middles into the game our outsides will be facing double-team blocks."
Another thing that Handley has preached all week is about not allowing the opponents to gain momentum or confidence during matches.
"Volleyball is such a game of momentum and it can change quickly," Handley said. "We have to keep it on our side. We don't want to give them any confidence because team's play better with confidence. Like us, we're playing with a lot of confidence right now, the girls can feel the difference. We just can't lose that feeling."