By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Montana State University-Northern head coach Lisa Handley knows there will be bumps in the road. With a team still searching for an identity and experience, her Skylights hit a few along the way this weekend as they finished 1-3 at the Rocky Mountain College Invitational volleyball tournament in Billings.
"It was rough at times," Handley said. "We played hard, but there was some pretty good competition at this tournament."
Northern opened the tournament with a tough 31-29, 30-26, 30-19 loss to the South Dakota Tech Hardrockers. Northern battled Tech tough for the first two games, but outside hitter June Engler was just too much to overcome.
"She was absolutely on fire," Handley said. "Everything she hit went down. She dominated us."
Brandi Snell led Northern with nine kills while Kelly Thorpe dished out 27 assists and added 10 digs in the win.
Northern shook off the loss later in the day to defeat conference-foe University of Great Falls 14-30, 30-25, 22-30, 30-26, 30-18.
The Skylights spotted UGF the first game by trying a different lineup and a 6-2 set.
"We experimented in the first game and it cost us," Handley said. "We didn't experiment any more after that and went back to our normal look."
The normal look worked as Northern rallied to beat their rivals in a hard-fought match against a much-improved UGF squad.
"Great Falls is much better than last year," Handley said. "Kelly Thorpe really came through late in the match with couple of big kills. We have a good rivalry with UGF and there was a lot intensity out there."
Mitsu Phillips picked up 19 kills and 14 digs while Lindsay Garcia added 16 kills. Thorpe had 39 assists and 15 digs in the match.
On Saturday, Northern opened with a very tough squad in Black Hills State and lost 30-13, 30-122, 30-24.
"Black Hills has a solid team," Handley said. "And we just couldn't get anything to go down because they either dug it up or blocked it. They're a good all-around team that should challenge for its conference title."
In the final game of the tourney, Northern squared off against another conference foe in Montana Tech. The Orediggers have established themselves as the team to beat in the Frontier Conference and they showed that against the Skylights.
After capitalizing on some Digger mistakes to take game one, Tech's aggressive serving and play began to take its toll on the Skylights serve-receive game.
"They really went after Nicole Kruse," Handley said. "They knew she was a freshman and tried to exploit that."
Tech went on to win the final three games - 30-22, 30-19, 30-20- to close out the Skylights. Phillips led Northern with 13 kills and six digs while Garcia added 11 kills and eight digs. Thorpe had 25 assists and 13 digs while Kruse picked up 19 digs.
"This is Tech's year," Handley said. "This is the toughest they have been in years. She has a very balanced team and they are very tough."
As for Northern, Handley remains upbeat about her squad and the improvement.
"We're going to keep working on the same things," Handley said. "I am sure there is a little frustration there, but there shouldn't be too much because we played some really tough competition."
For her efforts, Phillips was named to the all-tournament team.
Northern will return home and host its second tournament of the preseason this weekend.
South Dakota Tech def. MSU Northern
31-29, 30-26, 30-18
MSU-NORTHERN - Kills 31 (Brandi Snell 9, Mitsu Phillips 7), Assists 27 (Kelly Thorpe 27), Aces 15 (Julie Henderson 6), Digs 68 (Nicole Kruse 16, Tanja Bruski 11, Thorpe 10), Blocks 9 (Bruski 4).
MSU-Northern def. U of Great Falls
14-30, 30-25, 22-30, 30-26, 15-12
MSU-NORTHERN - Kills 47 (Phillips 19, Lindsay Garcia 19), Assists 45 (Thorpe 39), Aces 13 (Phillips 4), Digs 116 (Kruse 33, Henderson 15, Thorpe 14), Blocks 17.5 (Bruski 4, Garcia 4).
Black Hills St. def. MSU-Northern
13-30, 12-30, 24-30
MSU-NORTHERN - Kills 27 (Phillips 6, Bruski 5), Assists 26 (Thorpe 18), Aces 1 (Engstrom 1), Digs 48 (Kruse 11), Blocks 6 (Bruski 2).
Montana Tech def. MSU-Northern
24-30, 30-22, 30-19, 30-20
MSU-NORTHERN - Kills 38 (Phillips 13), Assists 37 (Thorpe 33), Digs 99 (Kruse 19), Blocks 3 (Bruski 2)