By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
To put it very simply, Montana State University-Northern played its best volleyball of the season on Friday night against league-leading Montana Tech.
Despite their strong performance, the Skylights still couldn't get an elusive Frontier Conference win, falling to the Orediggers, 30-28, 31-29, 27-30, 31-29 at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
Northern had opportunities to win games one and two, but the loss in game four will keep head coach Lisa Handley awake at night for days.
After a hard-fought win in game three, the Skylights grabbed a 27-17 lead thanks to the solid play of Lindsay Garcia and Mitsu Phillips.
But things started to slowly go downhill. Tech reeled off 10 consecutive points with the combination of Angela Bausch and Marrin Audet. The duo combined for three blocks and three kills in the run.
Handley called her final timeout in the middle of the run to quell the momentum, but it had little effect. With every point, Tech grew more confident while the Skylights' confidence was clearly shaken. Unable to slow the momentum, Handley could only watch as the Diggers tied the game at 27.
A Tanja Bruski kill put Northern back on top 28-27, but Tech tied it again on a kill from Bausch. A subsequent net serve by Bausch gave Northern its last lead at 29-28. A kill from Audet and back-to-back kills from Janalee Stokken gave Tech an improbable come-from-behind win in game four and the win for the match.
"I needed another timeout or another available sub, something to slow their momentum," Handley said. "We just couldn't put them away. We've lost so many games on 27 it's amazing."
"All the credit goes to Tech," Handley added. "They dug deep within themselves to win the game. They had some amazing saves and we had a couple of balls that didn't bounce our way."
But it wasn't just game four where Northern had chances to win. Games one and two also were very winnable.
Northern took a 10-8 lead in the opening game, but Tech rallied to go up 16-12. The Skylights spent the rest of the game trying to fight back into the game. An off-balance kill from Bruski cut the lead to one at 28-27. However, Tech got a kill from Collette Phillips to go up two. Tech helped out with a net serve to fall back within one. But Bruski's tip following a long rally was just wide, giving game one to Tech.
Game two was even closer as the Skylights grabbed a 15-11 lead. Tech slowly crawled back into the game, evening the score at 18 on passing mistake by Northern.
The two teams traded leads of never more than two points. Both teams slugged it out, making one big play after another. Tech stared down game point at 29-28, but a huge block from Garcia on Bausch tied the game at 29. Bausch got revenge with a kill on a long rally, and a net touch by Emmy Olson on a free ball gave Tech game two.
Down two games, it would have been easy for Northern to pack it in, but the Skylights came out in game three determined to get a win.
For the third straight game, the two teams battled down to the wire, with neither team taking more than a one-point lead until Mitsu Phillips' kill gave Northern a 28-26 lead.
Tech cut the lead to one on an Audet kill, but the Skylights got to game point on a Phillips tip.
Bruski punctuated the win with a monster kill off the face of Tech's Kaila Minehan.
"We definitely rattled Tech," Handley said. "The difference between us and Tech is we think we're going to win and Tech knows they're going to win."
Even with the loss, Handley saw some positives.
"I saw a lot of heart in that match that I hadn't seen all year," Handley said. "Especially considering we were using a brand new lineup."
Phillips and Garcia finished with 15 kills apiece while Bruski chipped in with 10. The setting tandem of Kelly Thorpe and Christine Smith combined for 50 assists while Nicole Kruse picked up 28 digs and Julie Henderson added 22 digs.
Audet finished with 19 kills and 12 digs while Stokken had 16 kills, and Bausch and Phillips added 14 and 12, respectively.
Making the loss even tougher for the Skylights was that they had a match less than 24 hours later against a tough Lewis-Clark State squad.
The emotional hangover from the heartbreaking loss on Friday definitely affected Northern on Saturday as LC handed the Skylights a 30-21, 30-19, 30-18 loss.
"Coming off an emotional loss like that, it's tough to bounce back," Handley said. "We played a little tight."
LC and Northern played relatively close for all three games until the Skylights got their score to 17 in each game, and things seemed to fall apart.
The duo of Amy Flaig and Kim Conder gave Northern trouble the entire match, finishing with a combined 27 kills and 15 blocks.
"Conder was just coming back from an injury," Handley said. "They were tough without her, but she makes them even better."
Bruski and Phillips led Northern with eight kills apiece while Kruse added 15 digs in the loss.
"LC was upset about playing poorly the night before against Great Falls," Handley said. "They came in here and took out some of their frustrations on us. With everyone healthy, LC is going to be tough to stop as the season goes on."
It wasn't all bad for the Skylights on the weekend. Northern picked up a 30-26, 30-18, 23-30, 30-24 win over the Skylights alumni squad on Sunday.
"It was good to get a win over the alumni," Handley said. "They had a good team and the win should help our confidence some."
Bruski had nine kills while Thorpe added 24 assists. The alumni were led by Tamecia Watkins with 12 kills and 11 digs. BreAnna Garner dished out 11 assists while Laura Munson had 4 blocks.
Northern will return to action on Wednesday when it hosts the University of Great Falls.
Montana Tech def. MSU-Northern
30-28, 31-29, 27-30, 31-29
TECH - Kills 69 (Marrin Audet 19), Assists 67 (Kelsey 63), Aces 11 (Angela Bausch 4), Digs 79 (Kaila Minehan 18, Beka Hudson 16 ), Blocks 10 (Angela Bausch 4).
MSUN - Kills 61 (Lindsay Garcia 15, Mitsu Phillips 15), Assists 55 (Kelly Thorpe 26, Christine Smith 24), Aces 4 (Tanja Bruski 2), Digs 108 (Nicole Kruse 28, Julie Henderson 22, Kelly Thorpe 17), Blocks 7 (Emmy Olson 2, Tera O'Haire 2).
Lewis-Clark St. def. MSU-Northern
30-21, 30-19, 30-18
MSUN - Kills 25 (Bruski 8, Phillips 8), Assists 23 (Thorpe 14, Smith 7), Aces 2 (Thorpe 1, Olson 1), Digs 62 (Kruse 15), Blocks 4 (Henderson 1, Garcia 1).
LC - Kills 52 (Amy Flaig 17, Kim Conder 10), Assists 45 (Anna Johnson 45), Aces 8 (Lindsay Iroume 3), Digs 45 (Conder 12, Page 11), Blocks 3 (Addy Hines 2).
MSU-Northern def. Skylights Alumni
30-26, 30-18, 23-30, 30-24
MSUN - Kills 54 (Bruski 9), Assists 40 (Thorpe 24), Aces 12 (Renae Knerr 4), Digs 78 (Kruse 13), Blocks 13 (Melanie Walker 3).
ALUM - Kills 37 (Tamecia Watkins 12), Assists 25 (BreAnna Garner 11), Aces 12 (Melissa Evans 3), Digs 51 (Lyndi Hostetter 11, Tamecia Watkins 11), Blocks 6 (Laura Munson 4).