By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
In the grand scheme of things -particularly the Frontier Conference standings - the pair of conference volleyball matches the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team will host this weekend mean very little.
Conference matches meaning little? Kind of.
Win or lose, Northern will finish in sixth place in the conference standings and go in as the sixth seed in next weekend's conference tournament.
Still, these matches are important in terms of gaining confidence for the tournament and because it will be the last time that seniors Tanja Bruski, Emmy Olson and Mitsu Phillips will play on the floor at the MSU-Northern gymnasium as Skylights.
"They realize it," said Skylights head coach Lisa Handley. "We talked all year about having no regrets and going out and playing hard. I don't want them to ever look back and wonder if they played hard enough, especially in their last home matches."
And their last home matches won't be easy as the Skylights host a rejuvenated Rocky Mountain College squad tonight and the always tough Carroll College Fighting Saints on Saturday.
The Skylights limp into this weekend a little nicked up. Phillips has been bothered by a sore right shoulder in the past few weeks, but should play. However, sophomore outside hitter Lindsay Garcia went down with a sprained ankle earlier in the week and most likely will not be available for the weekend.
Still having her best two hitters beat up a week before the conference tournament isn't the ideal equation for success.
"Obviously, it's not an ideal situation," Handley said. "Lindsay is pretty upset because she feels like she is letting the team down. But Julie Henderson played well last weekend against Westminster and, hopefully, Tanja and Emmy will step up. I also think Mitsu will come through."
Northern will be looking to even up the season series with Rocky, who holds a 2-1 edge. The Bears dumped the Skylights 30-27, 26-30, 26-30, 27-30 in their last meeting in Billings.
But much has changed since that last meeting, including the Bears' lineup, which has undergone some serious changes in the past few weeks.
"They've made some lineup changes," Handley said. "They sat Alyssa Root and moved Tess Morrison on the outside. And they've basically been setting Katy Furlong 40 or 50 times a game and living and dying by her performance."
Indeed, Furlong is among the leader in the Frontier Conference in kills per game. She has 397 kills on the season and has given Northern plenty of problems this season.
"They're definitely a different team than we've played in the past," Handley said. "Katy is a tremendous player. She hits the ball fast and hard and we have to be ready for it. Our blocking has to be there. We need Jeanna McPherson to play like she's been playing lately."
But Rocky's success doesn't completely hinge on Furlong. The Bears lead the Frontier in digs, assists, service aces and blocks.
"It's going to be a defensive battle," Handley said. "We need our serve-receive to be there and we have to communicate."
Regardless of Rocky's changes and Northern's injuries, Handley still has confidence in her team.
"Rocky is still a team we know we can beat," Handley said. "We just need to play like we're capable of."
While is Handley is confident about tonight, the past doesn't inspire a lot of confidence for Saturday night's match. Northern has never beaten Carroll College in Handley's tenure.
It's something she would like to change this weekend, but it certainly won't be easy. The Saints are currently in second place in the Frontier with a 9-3 conference record.
"You never know what Carroll team is going to show up," Handley said. "It usually depends on what happens in Great Falls. If they play poorly against UGF, they're going to come in here fired up."
However, there are few Saints players - one in particular - who don't need UGF for motivation. Carroll senior Mary Lester, who is one of the premiere players in the Frontier, always seems to play just a little bit better against Northern. It could be because Lester and Phillips are close friends who enjoy competing against each other.
"Mitsu and Mary always play well against each other," Handley said. "And Tanja and Mary have a pretty good rivalry going. Mary has been Tanja's nemesis for the past four years. It would be great for her to get her on senior night."
Lester leads the Saints in kills, kills per game, aces and digs, but she isn't the only contributor for Carroll. Krista Heavirland, Amber Miller, Katie Polette and Lena Mortenson also play key roles for the Saints. Still, Lester is the unquestioned leader of the Saints.
"I really respect Mary and what she's done in her career," Handley said. "It's been fun watching her grow."
As for her trio of seniors, Handley knows there might be a few tears shed before and after their final home match.
"I'm sure it's going to be very emotional," Handley said. "This is my first group of recruits to graduate. Emmy and Tanja stuck it out for all four years and Mitsu would have if she could have. They have started something here that we hope the group of our young players will follow."
But with all the emotion there is still volleyball left to play.
"I want this to be fun for them," Handley said. "But we're here to play volleyball and beating Rocky and Carroll on the same weekend would be a great memory for them."
The Northern matches will begin at 7 p.m. both nights.