By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
How important is tonight's Montana State University-Northern volleyball match with Rocky Mountain College? Important enough that Skylights head coach Lisa Handley took her team to Billings on Thursday to make sure they are well rested for the key Frontier Conference match.
"Normally, we drive the four hours and get out and play," Handley said Thursday. "But we're going down the night before because I want them as fresh as possible. That's how important this match is to us."
Northern, 2-3 in Frontier Conference play and 12-11 overall, is facing a must-win situation against Rocky. The Skylights have played Rocky twice this season, splitting the two matches.
"Not only is this an important match in terms of wins and losses," Handley said. "It's also important in terms of confidence and seeding at the conference tournament."
Rocky, also 2-3 in conference, and Northern couldn't be more similar in terms of talent, experience and inexperience.
The Battlin' Bears have just two seniors on their roster and rely heavily on underclassmen for production. Because of that youth, Rocky coach Wade Wells has shuffled his lineup some since the two teams met in early September.
"Wade moved his freshman middle blocker to the outside and is playing a shorter, quicker person in the middle," Handley said. "But he's gotten beaten pretty bad since doing that, so he may switch back. We have no idea what to expect from them in that regard."
Northern knows what to expect in personnel. The Skylights will have to deal with senior middle blocker Katy Furlong and junior outside hitter Megan Longnecker. Both players have caused some problems for Northern in the past.
"They're both really solid players," Handley said. "Katy is always tough on us and Megan is playing in every rotation now."
Regardless of who is on the floor or what position they are playing, Handley knows her team is very capable of beating Rocky.
"We know we match up really well with them," Handley said. "They are really tough on their home floor, but it's not like we haven't played there this year. The girls should know what to expect."
Handley will be looking for her two seniors, Mitsu Phillips and Tanja Bruski, to set the tone early in the match. Phillips had relatively quiet performances last weekend and Handley wants Phillips anything but quiet on the floor.
"We really feed off of Mitsu's emotion," Handley said. "We need her to be aggressive and emotional. Sometimes she almost afraid to show how good she is."
Bruski, a Billings native, will be playing in front of family and friends for the last time as a Skylight. Handley hasn't reminded her about it, but it's a sure bet that Bruski will want to play well.
"I think Tanja knows it will be her last time," Handley said. "She'll definitely want to play well and we need her to."
In fact, Handley needs the whole team to play well. In the 29-31, 30-21, 30-24, 30-26 win over Rocky, every Skylight contributed.
"We need everyone to play well at once," Handley said. "Our hitters especially, we need balance from our middles and outsides. It makes us more dangerous."
The outcome of the match may also have a direct effect on how the Skylights play on Saturday when they travel to Helena to take on a very tough Carroll College Saints squad.
"Confidence-wise, it would really help us on Saturday if we won on Friday," Handley said.
For the first time all season, Carroll's confidence might be a little shaken. The Saints were swept in Butte by a very tough Montana Tech team on Oct. 1 in what was supposed to be a preview of the Frontier Conference title game. Three days later, Lewis-Clark State stretched Carroll to five games before the Saints finally put the Warriors away.
"They're coming off a very tough loss and either they will be very motivated or they could be lacking a little self-confidence," Handley said. "Hopefully, we can capitalize on their self-doubt."
One player for Carroll who has little self-doubt and never lacks self-confidence is all-everything player Mary Lester. The senior from Great Falls has absolutely eaten Northern up in the past.
"She didn't have the best matches last week," Handley said. "But she always comes ready to play against us. She and Tanja have had some battles and she is good friends with Mitsu. So she really wants to beat her."
Northern got a taste of Carroll earlier this year at the Skylights Invitational. The result was a sour one as the Saints handled the Skylights 30-17, 30-19, 30-20.
"We played scared against them," Handley said. "We can't do that again. We've been playing much better and with much more confidence. We shouldn't be quite as intimidated this time around."
Beating Carroll in Helena is not an impossible task by any means, but it will be difficult.
"They just don't have any weaknesses," Handley said. "They're solid all the way around. But we've come close to beating them on their home floor in the past. We just couldn't get over the hump in those matches."
Both of Northern's matches will start at 7 p.m.