By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Montana State University-Northern volleyball coach Lisa Handley is hoping that the old adage - a team that has nothing to lose has everything to gain -is true. Her team really does have nothing to lose as it prepares for the first round of the Frontier Conference volleyball tournament in Butte.
The Skylights come into the tournament ranked sixth out of eight teams and will face the University of Montana-Western Bulldogs at 6 p.m. tonight at the HPER Complex on the Montana Tech campus.
Northern is far from the pretournament favorite, but Handley knows her team is capable of causing teams problems since there are few, if any, expectations.
"We have nothing to lose," Handley said. "We're not supposed to win. Hopefully we prove some people wrong and spoil some people's plans. If everybody plays well together, we definitely have a shot."
That "if" pretty much sums up the entire Skylights season. On only a handful of occasions has Handley seen her players all click at once. But in those few times, she has caught a glimpse of the potential this team possesses.
One of the reasons those moments are few is that at most times, there are a minimum of three true freshmen on the floor at once. That inexperience, coupled with the relative match inexperience of the remaining Skylights, has been a recipe for inconsistent play.
"We need our freshmen to trust in their abilities," Handley said.
Their play could be even more important because there is a possibility Northern could be without one of its leaders. Sophomore Lindsay Garcia is still nursing a sprained ankle that she suffered last week.
Handley said Garcia is going to try and give it a go, but her mobility and explosiveness will not be quite where it was before the injury.
"Lindsay's a competitor and she wants to be out there," Handley said. "But we've prepared all week like she wouldn't be there and we've had a couple of people step up who can fill her spot."
Even without Garcia, Handley is confident her team can play with, and beat, UM-Western. She felt that way at the beginning of the season, and despite a pair of losses to the Bulldogs, she stills believes her team can win.
"I still feel we match up really well with Western," Handley said. "They have very tough middles, but their outsides aren't really big hitters, they're just consistent. This is a team we wanted to play again, since we didn't play like we're capable of either time."
In Northern's home match against Western, serving errors and serve-receive errors plagued the Skylights in a gut-wrenching 29-31, 30-17, 30-28, 23-30, 15-4 loss. Two weeks later, Northern endured a seven-hour bus ride through a winter storm which forced them to immediately play upon arrival in Dillon. Once again, they lost.
"The key is going to come down to which team can make the least amount of mistakes," Handley said. "We've need to know where we need to be defensively at all times and keep the ball in play."
Western is led by sophomore middle hitter Katherine Sunwall along with outside hitter Kasey Smith. The duo leads the Bulldogs in kills, kills per game and blocks.
Northern will counter with senior Tanja Bruski and Mitsu Phillips, both of whom will be playing the last matches of their college careers.
The Bulldogs "have some weaknesses that we feel very confident we can take advantage of," Handley said.