By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
The athleticism, the ability and the attitude are there. All the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team needs are the wins go with them. The Skylights, 2-7 on the season, have been in just about every match they've played this season. But the wins haven't come for any number of reasons ranging from unforced errors, lack of communication or lack of consistency.
Basically, Northern hasn't been able to consistently put everything together in most matches, which have led to the losses. But the youthful Skylights will get the opportunity to right the ship and pick up some much-needed wins when they host the Skylights Volleyball Invitational starting on Friday morning.
With the Frontier Conference schedule looming just a week away, wins have become a necessity for head coach Lisa Handley and her squad.
"We need some wins," Handley said. "We need to believe that we can beat any team we play. We need to learn how to win."
If the games were played during Northern's practice time, Handley knows her team would probably be 9-0 on the season. That's because in practice, the Skylights play with unabashed aggressiveness and enthusiasm. However, Handley hasn't always seen that during games.
"I love this team during practice," Handley said. "They communicate, talk and are loud on the floor, but in a game they clam up and get quiet. I see it in practice, but they have to be willing to play like that in a game."
Obviously, playing that way is more important in games. With the depth of this Skylights team, Handley will simply sub someone in who is willing to play that way. For the first time in her tenure, Northern is two players deep at just about every position and each player is fairly even in terms of what they can contribute.
"W''re going to bring in whoever is playing well," Handley said. "Whoever is hot at the time will be on the floor. They understand that and have been very supportive when someone comes in for them."
But communicating on the floor isn't up to just one player, rather it's the whole team's responsibility.
Consequently, Handley has reminded her team about it approximately a trillion times this week.
"It's time to start playing that way this weekend," Handley said. "We can't wait any longer. Conference is coming up and it has to happen now."
Northern won't have to wait long to see conference teams. The Skylights open with a familiar foe in the Rocky Mountain College Bears.
Rocky has already defeated the Skylights once this season during Northern's other preseason tourney in four games, 30-27, 30-21, 21-30, 30-17.
But it was in that match that Northern was in a general malaise from the service line. The Skylights committed 17 serving errors, many coming at crucial times to cost them the match.
Still, it wasn't just the Skylight mistakes, a solid Bears squad also had plenty to do with it. The 1-2 combination of setter Tess Morrison and middle hitter Katy Furlong caused plenty of problems. Add to that the play of rapidly improving freshman Alyssa Root and Rocky is a very dangerous squad.
"We match up pretty good with them," Handley said. "They're a good team that is really starting to play well."
Later on Friday, the Skylights will get their first look at the Carroll College Fighting Saints. Unfortunately, the Saints possess a player that just about everyone in the conference is tired of seeing.
Senior Mary Lester of Great Falls has been a one-woman show for the Saints at times this season. She is the best all-around player in the conference and might just be the best player in the conference, period.
Lester led the Saints in kills, kills per game, digs and aces last season and seems well on her way to doing it again.
To say that she draws attention from opponents is an understatement. People know where she is at on the floor at all times.
"She is just solid and an extremely intense competitor," Handley said. "She doesn't seem to have any weaknesses. We're working on ways to slow her down because you're not going to completely shut her down."
Carroll, ranked 22nd in the nation, is expected along with Montana Tech to challenge for the Frontier Conference title this season and Handley believes it is important to play Carroll early in the season instead of seeing them for the first time in conference play.
"We get to see them early and get some of the nervousness out early by playing them in the preseason," Handley said.
On Saturday, Northern will start with one of the few teams in the area that has beaten Montana Tech this season.
The Minot State Beavers come into Havre a relative unknown to Handley, but one thing jumps out very quickly.
"They beat Tech," Handley said. "Even if Tech didn't play particularly well in that match, Minot still played tough enough to win. It gives us an indicator of the level we have to play at to beat them."
Minot is led by junior middle hitter Lisa Webb, who averages 4.2 kills per game and 4.6 digs per game. The Beavers also get solid contributions from sophomore middle hitter Kathy Gilbertson, sophomore outside hitter Emmy McGuinness and freshman setter Randi Biss. Minot does not have a single senior and just three juniors on their roster.
If Minot is an unknown, the Lethbridge squad coming to Havre is a total mystery. Handley only knows that the program has plenty funding, excellent facilities and pretty large talent pool to pull from.
"Volleyball is very big in Canada," Handley said. "They play it all year round up there. It's why there are so many Canadian players are recruited down here."
Indeed, Minot's roster consists of eight players from north of the border.
But to Handley it really doesn't matter who her team is playing. She just wants her team to finish the preseason up by playing the style she sees in practice because it should translate to wins.
"I need some gamers to step in and win us games," Handley said. "We have the ability, the athleticism and the attitude, we just need to get some wins."