By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
As the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team prepared for tonight's match against Frontier conference-leader Montana Tech, Skylights head coach Lisa Handley mentioned that last year conference-leading UM-Western strolled into the MSU-Northern gymnasium with an undefeated record in conference and two hours later, strolled right back out with a loss.
The Skylights will look for a repeat performance of last year when they host a tough Digger squad tonight at 7 p.m. as part of Northern's homecoming festivities.
"That's the last thing we talked about before leaving the gym," Handley said on Thursday night. "We keep reminding them that we need to have that confidence and believe that we can win."
Tech, ranked 16th in NAIA, comes into the match with a 6-1 conference record, having fallen to Lewis-Clark State in Lewiston, ID.
Regardless of the loss, Tech is still the prohibitive favorite to take the conference title.
"They didn't have their setter (Becky Hancock) for that match," Handley said of the Diggers. "LC is a tough place to play, but I think things would have been different if she was there.
According to the Montana Standard, Hancock had emergency surgery before the match against LC and won't be available for this weekend.
"I am sure their backup has gotten plenty of sets in practice and will be ready for us," Handley said. "It will change their offense a little because Becky was tough, but hopefully it change things up too much in terms of personnel.
One thing that won't change for Tech is their overall style of play which includes aggressive serving, a hustling defense and a total lack of mistakes.
"Tech just plays so consistently," Handley said. "They don't make any errors and force you to make them instead."
Even without Hancock, hitters Marrin Audet and Janalee Stokken can make any setter look pretty good. The duo lead Tech in kills, kills per game and blocks.
If Friday night will be tough, Saturday afternoon won't be any easier as Northern welcomes in Lewis-Clark State - the one team that beat Tech.
Northern was beaten handily earlier in the season in Lewiston as the Warriors served them off the floor.
"They are the best jump-serving team in the conference," Handley said. "It can really cause problems for your offense."
LC served up a whopping 17 aces in the match with Lindsay Iroume picking up seven of them.
It seems like every week, Handley preaches to her team about the importance of serve-receive, and it was no different this week.
"I am sure they are tired of hearing about serve-receive," Handley said. "But they know that it makes us or breaks us. We've got to get it done. Hopefully, our new lineup will give us some better passing."
Handley's new lineup will feature a position change for senior Tanja Bruski, who moves from the middle to the right side, while Jeanna McPherson and Tera O'Haire will play middle.
Handley has talked with Bruski and fellow seniors Mitsu Phillips and Emmy Olson about the importance of these matches especially as their careers are winding down.
"I talked to our seniors about regrets," Handley said. "It's down to then end and they need to go down swinging. I told them to play hard enough so they won't have regrets a few years from now. Because if you feel like you could have played just a little harder, that's tough to live with."
With all of the hoopla surrounding homecoming, the games sometimes get lost in all of it. But Handley has been reminding her team that the games come first.
"Homecoming is fun," Handley said. "But we need to get our job done first, it will make the rest of the events much more fun if we win."
The Skylights will be sponsoring a poster promotion for tonight's match against Tech. People can make a Skylights poster and bring it to the game. People making posters will get in free and the winner of the best poster will receive a $100 pizza party from Nalivkas.
Tonight's match will begin at 7 p.m. while Saturday's begins at 2 p.m. On Sunday, the Skylights will be playing their annual alumni match at 11 a.m.