By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
With the Frontier Conference schedule looming a week away, Montana State University-Northern volleyball coach Lisa Handley knows there isn't much more time for her team to find some consistency.
Thus far, the Skylights have had plenty peaks and valleys as they search for a team identity and this weekend was no different. Handley watched as her team experienced a full spectrum of highs and lows as Northern finished 2-2 at the Skylights Volleyball Invitational at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
Northern opened the tournament with an impressive 29-31, 30-21, 30-24, 30-26 win over the Rocky Mountain College Battlin' Bears. After falling to Rocky two weeks ago in Havre, the Skylights exacted a little revenge on their conference foes.
"Playing against them once before definitely helped us," Handley said. "We weren't as nervous and came out with the right attitude."
The right attitude was aggressiveness from the entire team, which is something Handley had been looking for in the past few weeks.
"They played so aggressive, every one of them, and that's what it takes for us to win," Handley said.
After dropping a very tough first game, the Skylights became even more assertive and started swinging on offense. The outside hitting tandem of Mitsu Phillips and Lindsay Garcia went to work on the Rocky blocks while Tanja Bruski and Julie Henderson also got in on the act. All four finished in double figures in kills with Phillips and Garcia each netting a team-high 13 while Bruski and Henderson finished with 12 and 11, respectively.
But Northern's aggressive attitude was a memory later in the night when it took the floor against the nationally-ranked Carroll College Fighting Saints.
Carroll, picked to be near the top of the Frontier, has been playing extremely well of late and it continued on Friday night as the Saints cruised past Northern, 30-17, 30-19, 30-20.
The Saints wasted little time, dominating the nets on both offense and defense, showing why they are nationally ranked.
"Carroll is going to be very tough to stop this year," Handley said. "They are so dominant at the net and they don't have a weak spot on their team. You can't just focus on Mary Lester because they have other weapons that will hurt you."
It wasn't a case of Northern playing that badly, although they didn't play fantastic. It was more that Carroll played that well to make the scores seem lopsided.
"They played so well, it made us look like we were playing really poorly," Handley said. "They didn't let us play up to our capabilities with the way they dominated at the net."
While her team didn't play badly, Handley knows they can play much better than that.
"We looked scared, we played scared," Handley said. "I think we were a little intimidated since we haven't seen them before."
On Saturday, Northern came out strong early against Minot State, but couldn't put MSU away in the first two games, losing a pair of heartbreakers. The first two games wiped out the Skylights emotionally as Minot cruised in game three to take the match 31-29, 33-31, 30-15.
"Our hearts kind of dropped out at the bottom after those first two games," Handley said. "We watched Minot play last weekend and we knew they never quit."
Northern had its chances serving on game point on four different occasions, but could never finish the pesky North Dakota squad.
"We played passively when it was time to win the game," Handley said. "We stopped swinging and hitting the ball hard. We didn't do that against Rocky and won. But we stopped swinging and started playing it safe."
The Skylights rebounded to pick up a 30-18, 31-29, 30-16, win over Lethbridge in their final game of the tournament.
Northern played better as Handley reminded her team that volleyball should be a lot of things, but first and foremost, it's fun.
"We talked after the Minot game about having some fun," Handley said. "We weren't showing a lot of emotion and they did that against Lethbridge. We have to play with some passion."
Phillips led Northern with 11 kills, while Nicole Kruse added 27 digs and Kelly Thorpe dished out 24 assists.
Both Bruski and Phillips were named to the all-tournament team. Carroll's Mary Lester was named the tournament MVP.
"We're getting better, there is no doubt about that," Handley said. "Our passing is there; we need to work on our blocking and a few other things."
MSU-Northern def. Rocky Mountain
29-31, 30-21, 30-24, 30-26
MSUN - Kills 59 (Mitsu Phillips 13, Lindsay Garcia 13), Assists 56 (Kelly Thorpe 52), Aces 10 (Julie Henderson 4), Digs 114 (Nicole Kruse 30), Blocks 10 (Tanja Bruski 5).
RMC - Kills 47 (Katy Furlong 15), Assists 44 (Tess Morrison 43), Aces 5 (Morrison 3). Digs 93 (Jen Buening 23), Blocks 5 (Furlong 2).
Carroll College def. MSU-Northern
30-17, 30-19, 30-20
CC - Kills (Lena Mortenson 10), Assists (Amber Miller 13), Aces (Miller 2). Digs (Amber Carter 6), Blocks (Natalie Solomon 6, Nikki Woodward 6).
MSUN - Kills 15 (Phillips 5), Assists 10 (Thorpe 8), Aces 4 (Bruski 2). Digs 39 (Kruse 12), Blocks 2 (Bruski 1, Henderson 1).
Minot St. def. MSU-Northern
31-29, 33-31, 30-15
MSU - Kills 60 (Lisa Webb 18, Kathy Gilberston 16, Megan Paradine 14), Assists 54 (Marcy Herman 48), Aces 5 (Nicole Durnan 3), Digs 96 (Webb 22, Paradine 20), Blocks 16 (Gilbertson 6).
MSUN - Kills 31 (Phillips 10), Assists 26 (Thorpe 23), Aces 5 (Henderson 4). Digs 57 (Henderson 12), Blocks 8 (Bruski 2, Henderson 2, Phillips 2).
MSU-Northern def. Lethbridge
30-18, 31-29, 30-16
MSUN - Kills 35 (Phillips 11, Bruski 8), Assists 34 (Thorpe 24), Aces 9 (Henderson 2, Bruski 2, Tera O'Haire 2). Digs 103 (Nicole Kruse 27), Blocks 8 (Bruski 2, O'Haire 2, Henderson 2).
LETH - no stats available
TOURNAMENT MVP - Mary Lester, Carroll
ALL TOURNEY TEAM - Tanja Bruski, MSUN; Katy Furlong, RMC; Krista Heavirland, CC; Tess Morrison, RMC; Megan Paradine, MSU; Mitsu Phillips, MSU; Lisa Webb, MSU.