By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Montana State University-Northern head volleyball coach Lisa Handley knew going into this weekend's Skylights Invitational her team would make some mistakes. There always are mistakes in the first matches of the year. But she was more interested in how her young team would react to those mistakes.
Handley's team didn't disappoint in her in either respect. The Skylights committed more than their fair share of mistakes, but they also lessened the number of mistakes in the following matches to finish 1-3 on the weekend.
"We improved throughout the weekend," Handley said. "We knew there would be plenty of mistakes and some nerves. But I was really pleased that we cut down on our unforced errors in every match. That is very important for a young team."
In its opening match, a 30-24, 27-30, 30-27, 30-21 loss to Williston State, Northern made a whopping 18 unforced errors as a mixture of first-game jitters and tight play plagued the Skylights throughout.
"You could tell in that first game that we were really nervous," Handley said. "And our serving was absolutely horrible on Friday."
Indeed, horrible might actually be putting it nicely. Northern committed an egregious 17 service errors in the opening match against the Tetons.
But it wasn't just the errors that hurt the Skylights, it was the timing of them. On several occasions, Northern had momentum and scoring runs crushed with missed serves.
"It started to be a mental thing after awhile," Handley said. "We just couldn't get one in."
But it wasn't just the serving. Northern looked a step out of rhythm on offense. The timing between freshman setter Kelly Thorpe and the Skylight hitters was just a little off ,which Handley believes was a combination of first-game nerves for Thorpe and a slight unfamiliarity between Thorpe and her hitters.
"That first game you could see that Kelly was pretty nervous," Handley said. "But she still did a nice job dealing with the adversity. But even our older girls also struggled at times. They are still trying to get used to Kelly and it showed in our hitting percentage."
Despite the plethora of mistakes, the Skylights were still in the match. Northern had opportunities to win games one and three of the match, which pleased Handley.
"We hung in there and fought even with the errors," Handley said. "They never gave up and played hard the whole time."
Lindsay Garcia led Northern with 13 kills and 10 digs while Mitsu Phillips had 12 kills. Nicole Kruse had 24 digs while Thorpe had 40 assists.
In the nightcap on Friday, Northern once again was plagued with unforced errors - committing 17, all service errors - in a 30-27, 30-21, 21-30, 30-17 loss to conference foe Rocky Mountain College.
The Skylights had opportunities in games one and three, but a few errors and the solid play of Rocky's Katy Furlong quashed Northern's momentum.
Furlong had 10 kills, six digs and four and half blocks to lead the Bears.
Northern got 13 kills from Phillips, 11 from Brandi Snell and 10 from Tanja Bruski in the loss. Thorpe had 39 assists while Kruse had a team-high 13 digs.
On Saturday, Northern cut the unforced errors in half and played solid volleyball, defeating the Mayville State Comets, 30-23, 25-30, 30-26, 30-27, to pick up its first win of the season.
"Beating Mayville was a big win for us," Handley said. "In terms of confidence it really helped because Mayville is a very solid team. We lost to them in five games last year and to beat them in four here was a very nice win."
Northern committed just eight unforced errors in the match, including just six service errors.
"We didn't allow ourselves beat to ourselves by cutting down on our mistakes," Handley said.
The serving that plagued Northern the night before turned out to be a strength against the Comets. The Skylights served up 11 aces, including a school-record nine by Bruski, which eclipsed the record of eight by Heather Hammonds in 2000.
During a critical point in game three with the match tied 1-1, Bruski served seven consecutive points as the Skylights broke open a 19-19 game and Snell ended the game with a kill down the line.
In game four, Handley went to her bench late in the match and it payed off. Garcia came in late in the match with the Skylights down 25-24. The sophomore outside hitter picked up three key kills and Bruski notched her record ninth ace to punctuate game four and the match.
"For the first time since I've been here, we have some real depth," Handley said. "It really helped. Brandi did a great job for us early in the match, but she started wearing down. We brought Lindsay back in and she gave us a lift."
Northern played solid defense, averaging a whopping 30.8 digs per game en route to a 123-dig performance.
Phillips once again led the Skylights with 14 kills and 13 digs while Snell contributed with 11 kills and 19 digs. Thorpe had 40 assists and 22 digs while Kruse and Julie Henderson had 18 digs apiece.
With the win, Northern took on Williston for the second time in the third-fourth place game of the tourney.
Handley used a variety of lineups and her team's chemistry suffered a little in a 30-17, 22-30, 28-30, 30-20, 10-15 loss to the Tetons.
"We used some different lineups and looks in that match," Handley said. "We're still in the process of determining our best combinations. Brandi came in as a middle for us and we played her on the outside and did a great job. But it's still going to take some time to find the right combo."
Phillips led the Skylights with 13 kills. Garcia added 10 kills and nine digs. Thorpe had 35 assists and 10 digs and Kruse chipped in with 18 digs.
"Overall, I was pretty pleased with the weekend," Handley said. "The teams in the tournament were evenly matched and there was great volleyball played."
As for her team's weekend, Handley was diplomatic, admitting that the mistakes were far outweighed by her team's potential.
"We can be very good," Handley said. "It's going to come down to consistent play and I think that will come with some confidence."
Northern will travel to Billings this weekend for the Rocky Mountain College Invitational.
Williston St. def. MSU-Northern 30-24, 27-30, 30-27, 20-21
WSC - Kills 37 (Chelsey Vinger 12), Assists 37 (Jennifer Hansen 37), Aces 11 (Vinger 5), Digs 47 (Carrie Sandstrom 13)
MSUN - Kills 49 (Lindsay Garcia 13, Mitsu Phillips 12), Assists 45 (Kelly Thorpe 40), Aces 12 (Julie Henderson 6), Digs 69 (Nicole Kruse 24), Blocks 8 (Tanja Bruski 2).
Rocky Mountain def. MSU-Northern 30-27, 30-21, 21-30, 30-17
RMC - Kills 43 (Katy Furlong 10), Assists 40 (Tess Morrison 40), Aces 9 (Furlong, Alyssa Root 2), Digs 67 (Jen Buening 20, Root 18), Blocks 8 (4).
MSUN - Kills 47 (Phillips 13, Brandi Snell 11, Bruski 10), Assists 42 (Thorpe 39), Aces 5 (several tied with 1), Digs 52 (Kruse 13), Blocks 7 (Tera O'Haire 3).
Mayville St. def. MSU-Northern 30-23, 25-30, 30-26, 30-27
MSUN - Kills 49 (Phillips 14, Snell 13), Assists 44 (Thorpe 40), Aces 11 (Bruski 9), Digs 123 (Thorpe 22, Snell 19, Kruse, Henderson 18), Blocks 14 (Bruski 4).
MAY - Kills 58 (Andgie Kauffman 14, Melissa Potter 12), Assists 54 (Kayla Aune 52), Aces 10 (Kristin Bergstrom 3), Digs 131 (Potter 29, Kauffman 26, Katie Karlstad 20), Blocks 21 (Bergstrom 7).
Williston State def. MSU-Northern 30-17, 22-30, 28-30, 30-20, 10-15
WSC - no stats available
MSUN - Kills 58 (Phillips 13, Garcia 10), Assists 47 (Thorpe 35), Aces 10 (several with 2), Digs 68 (Kruse 18, Thorpe 10), Blocks 11 (Bruski 4).