By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
The preseason that seemed to be taking forever for the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team is now a memory.
The Skylights open the Frontier Conference as they travel to Butte today to take on the Montana Tech Orediggers at 7 p.m. at the HPER Complex on the Montana Tech campus.
While her players may not think so, head coach Lisa Handley wouldn't mind a few more preseason matches before the conference season to polish a few things up. But the Skylights won't get that luxury as they open up against one of the top teams in the Frontier Conference.
The Montana Tech Orediggers sport a 12-6 record including a 24-30, 30-22, 30-19, 30-20 win over the Skylights earlier this season at the Rocky Mountain Volleyball Invitational.
"We've seen them before and know what playing against them is like," Handley said. "We definitely know what we need to work on from the last match. There shouldn't be any nerves."
What the Skylights need to work on is their serve-receive and their own serving, according to Handley.
"Tech is the best serving team in the conference," Handley said. "It places a lot of pressure on our serve-receive game to get our offense started. We also have to cut down on our service errors."
Indeed, Northern committed 17 service errors in the first meeting, which in rally-scoring means 17 free points for Tech. And that makes it nearly impossible for any team to win.
"We can't afford that many errors," Handley said. "Tech is way too good of a team to give free points."
Instead, Northern must capitalize on the few mistakes Tech makes. Because they serve so aggressively, he Diggers have a tendency to make some service errors. Handley said her team must be able to use those mistakes to their advantage.
Another adjustment the Skylights have prepared for is the Diggers' best hitter, Marrin Audet, who transferred from the University of Montana. Audet, a 6-0 outside hitter, is lefthanded which is a little different look.
"We don't see a lot of lefthanders," Handley said. "It's something different. We have to be aware of it because they run a lot of stuff to her."
Audet has given Tech another big hitter to compliment middle blockers Angela Bausch and Janalee Stokken.
Leading the Tech defense is senior libero Kaila Minehan, who leads the Diggers with 269 digs on the season while setter Becky Hancock is very consistent.
It doesn't get much easier for the Skylights. After playing Tech, Northern will drive four more hours to Lewiston, Idaho on Saturday to take on a solid Lewis-Clark State Warrior squad.
Like Tech, LC is the type of team that doesn't make mistakes, rather forcing opponents into them.
"Tech and LC don't make commit a lot of unforced errors," Handley said. "They pick up everything and keep it in play."
The Warriors are led by all-conference, all-region middle blocker Amy Flaig of Missoula. Flaig led LC last year in kills (209), kills per game (2.87), total blocks (102) and second on the team in digs (209).
Joining Flaig is honorable all-conference selection Lindsey Iroume at middle blocker, senior Kim Conder at outside hitter and libero Courtney Callaghan also of Missoula.
Lewis-Clark has plenty of experience returning and a distinct home court advantage.
"It's a very tough place to play," Handley said. "It's a small gym, the fans are right on top of you and it get's very, very loud in there. We have to stay composed."
For the Skylights to keep their composure, Handley will look to her two seniors - Mitsu Phillips and Tanja Bruski - for leadership.
"I need Tanja and Mitsu to step up, especially when we're on the road," Handley said. "They need to show younger players how to play hard at all times because our younger players definitely look to them during matches."
Phillips is leading the Skylights in kills while Bruski leads the team in blocks. Freshman libero Nicole Kruse has shown little fear this season while setter Kelly Thorpe has been slowly recovering from a sprained ankle.
Practice has suffered this week as Handley and several of her players have been victimized by a flu bug going around campus. But a little sickness is no excuse in conference play.
"They're ready to go," Handley said. "They know they have to be ready to push and fight through whatever happens. They're getting excited. We've been working all week to go 2-0 on this first road trip."