By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Frontier Conference tournament was a microcosm of the entire 2003 season for the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team. The Skylights played their best match of the season to upset University of Montana-Western to open the tournament, but then were plagued by a few inconsistent moments in a pair of losses to Carroll College and Montana Tech to end their season.
Northern pulled off the upset of the tournament on Friday night, stunning Western 30-22, 30-20, 30-16 in the opening round. After losing to the Bulldogs twice in the regular season, Northern played mistake-free volleyball and it showed.
"The only way I can describe the way they played was beautiful," said head coach Lisa Handley. "They ran everything we worked on to perfection. It was really fun to watch.
"It's definitely the best we played all year."
Not only did Northern rack up the upset in three straight games in decisive fashion, it did so shorthanded.
With Lindsay Garcia still bothered by a sprained ankle, Handley had planned to start Julie Henderson in her place. But Henderson came down with the flu the day of the match, forcing true freshman Brandi Snell to step in. Snell responded with a match-high 12 kills and 12 digs after being pressed into action.
"We had Brandi replace Julie and Renae Knerr stepped in for Brandi," Handley said. "Both of them did a great job."
Northern also got nine kills and two aces from Tanja Bruski in the win.
"Tanja really played well," Handley said. "She was a part of the team that upset Rocky two years ago and she really made a difference out there."
With the first-round win, the upset-minded Skylights looked to pull off a bigger upset against tournament favorite Carroll College.
But the Saints, who would go on to win the championship, weren't about to be fodder for another upset, beating the Skylights 30-28, 28-30, 30-19, 30-17. But the win didn't come easy; Northern gave Carroll all it could handle.
The Skylights held a 28-26 lead in game one until Carroll's Mary Lester moved to the net in the rotation. Three Lester kills gave Carroll a 29-28 lead and eventually the game. Northern carried the momentum into game two to win the game 30-28 and even led early in game three before a mishap between a Carroll outside hitter and Northern setter Kelly Thorpe.
"Carroll's outside hitter took Kelly out underneath the net out of frustration," Handley said. "It wasn't a bad injury, but the whole situation kind of took the win out of us. The energy wasn't there as it was prior to that."
Carroll won game three and four convincingly to move into the championship.
Lester finished with a match-high 19 kills and 14 digs to lead Carroll. Mitsu Phillips led Northern with 11 kills while Bruski added seven kills and four aces in the loss.
Despite the loss, Northern was still alive in the tournament. The Skylights met the host Montana Tech Orediggers in a consolation match. The winner of the match would most likely qualify for the regional volleyball tournament.
"Because of the way they played in the regular season, all Tech had to do to qualify was beat us," Handley said. "They came out very fired up."
The Skylights consequently played in that passive, unsure manner that hurt them on several occasions this season. Northern made several serving miscues that cost them in a 30-23, 30-16, 35-33 loss.
Marin Audet had 19 kills to lead the Orediggers. Phillips had 10 kills in her final college match, while fellow senior Emmy Olson added seven kills and 11 digs.
"We were up and down this weekend, which has pretty much been the case all year," Handley said. "But I told them to be proud of what they accomplished. They surprised a lot of people this weekend."
It will also provide a foundation for next year with the bulk of the players returning.
"In the long run, this will be great for our younger players' confidence. They are going to benefit in the spring season and next fall."
MSU-Northern def. UM-Western
30-22, 30-20, 30-16
MSU-Northern - Kills 38 (Brandi Snell 12, Tanja Bruski 9), Assists 31 (Kelly Thorpe 27), Aces 8 (four tied with 2), Digs 47 (Snell 13, Thorpe 12, Nicole Kruse 11), Blocks 10 (Jeanna McPherson 8).
UM-Western - Kills 36 (Kasey Smith 9), Assists 36 (Emily Smith 18, Lindsay Scott 16), Aces 2 (two with 1), Digs 46 (Amy Smith), Blocks 6 (K. Smith 4).
Carroll College def. MSU-Northern
30-28, 28-30, 30-19, 30-17
MSU-Northern - Kills 38 (Mitsu Phillips 11, Emmy Olson 7, Bruski 7), Assists 29 (Thorpe 22), Aces 8 (Bruski 4), Digs 55 (Nicole Kruse 15, Olson 10, Snell 10), Blocks 11 (Thorpe 5, Jeanna McPherson 5).
Carroll - Kills 61 (Mary Lester 19, Lena Mortenson 14, Alecia Elliot 11), Assists 55 (Miller 42), Aces 10 (Amber Carter 4), Digs 59 (Carter 18, Lester 14), Blocks 10 (Natalie Solomon 5).
Montana Tech def. MSU-Northern
30-23, 30-16, 35-33
MSU-Northern - Kills 36 (Phillips 10, Olson 7), Assists 32 (Thorpe 27), Aces 1 (Bruski 1), Digs 61 (Olson 11, Kruse 10 ), Blocks 6 (three tied with 2).
Tech - Kills 57 (Marin Audet 19, Colette Phillips 12, Janalee Stokken 10), Assists 50 (Becky Hancock 40), Aces 12 (three tied with 3), Digs 49 (Kaila Minehan 12), Blocks 8 (Stokken 3, Phillips 2).