By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Mired in a four-match losing streak, tonight's home match against the University of Great Falls would seem like the perfect cure the Montana State University-Northern's recent spate of losing.
But when you have just two wins in the Frontier Conference, you can't overlook a team that has one fewer conference win.
Great Falls, 1-8 in conference, 4-19 overall, limps into the MSU-Northern gymnasium in the middle of a losing streak of its own. The Argos have dropped five-straight matches since defeating Westminster College 30-16, 30-26, 30-24 on Oct. 3.
But as Skylights head coach Lisa Handley is quick to point out, her team isn't in any position to look past any team.
"We can't afford to overlook Great Falls or anyone for that matter," Handley said. "On any given night, UGF is capable of beating us and any other team in the conference."
Like Great Falls, Northern's last win also came against Westminster on Oct. 4 while the Skylights' other conference win was a 20-30, 30-22, 18-30, 25-30 win on Sept. 24 over UGF on its home floor. Northern, 2-7 in the Frontier and 12-15 overall, also has a 14-30, 30-25, 22-30, 30-26, 15-12 win over the Argos in a preseason tournament.
While there has never been much love shared between the two teams, the conference beating the Skylights handed UGF earlier this season has added a little more incentive and intensity to the match.
"We know they're out to get us," Handley said. "We beat them on their home floor and I am sure they would love to return the favor."
As if this budding rivalry needed any more escalation. There isn't bad blood between the Skylights and Argos, rather a general dislike of losing to each other. Both teams feel that they should never lose to the other ever; consequently this is more than your friendly match of volleyball."
In the previous two matches this season, there has been some words exchanged on the court between the two squads.
Call it woofin, call it talkin' smack, whatever, the two teams volleyed words across the net as often as the volleyball itself. Trash talking can have either positive or negative effects; for the slightly reserved Skylights, it brought out some emotion and anger that they don't always play with. And Handley loved every second of it.
"It really seemed to make us play harder," she said. "It really got Mitsu (Phillips) going."
Getting Phillips going will be a primary goal for Handley. The senior outside hitter, along with fellow outside hitter, Lindsay Garcia, pounded out 32 kills in the match in Great Falls. Because of that, Handley knows who UGF will be keying on.
"I am sure they will focus on Mitsu and Lindsay quite a bit," Handley said. "We need our middle to play well. If Tanja (Bruski) can play like she did on Sunday against the alumni squad, it will open up the outside and give us some balance."
However, there is the possibility that Bruski will be on the right side instead of the middle. In the past few weeks, Handley has changed lineups and offenses with regularity, trying to find the right mixture and look to be successful in the respective match. That trend should continue tonight.
"Emmy Olson has been playing so well lately, we want her playing on the right side," Handley said. "We could play a 5-1 look or a 6-2 or both at different times in the match. It will depend on who's playing well that night and where they are playing their best."
Great Falls will also have a different look tonight in terms of personnel and its starting lineup. Junior transfer Kristen Carter and former Havre standout Jayla McPherson have both left the team and are practicing with the basketball team.
Carter, at 6-0, was one of the Argos' tallest players, while McPherson, who came to UGF to play basketball and joined the volleyball team this year, was a solid blocker and brought overall intensity to the floor.
"They will have a different look now," Handley said. "But they still have Stephanie Smith, who is a solid player, and someone could always step up. Sometimes when teams have some internal adversity, it brings them closer together and they play better."
Besides Smith, freshman hitter Mellany Dochylos and transfer Ashley Zerr-Smith also contribute heavily for UGF.
"Great Falls is a good blocking team," Handley said. "It's probably their biggest strength and something that our hitters have to be aware of."
Handley and the Skylights are running a "Pack the House" promotion for tonight's match. Handley hopes to draw the biggest crowd thus far this season. The program will be giving away a free DVD player at the match. Any person attending the match can register to win and the winner will be selected in between games two and three.
"The DVD player comes from our fundraising," Handley said. "Last year we had a great crowd for this promotion. Hopefully, it will be even better this year."
The Skylihgts-Argos match will begin at 7 p.m.