By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
It's a simple and logical equation really. More players, plus more playing time, equals better teams.
For Montana State University-Northern volleyball coach Lisa Handley, the answer to the equation has become a reality as the Skylights volleyball program will suit up a junior varsity team for the first time in the 2004 fall season.
Handley initially made the announcement at Northern's end of the year awards banquet last week in front of local boosters and Northern athletes.
It will the first and only junior varsity team in the Frontier Conference and Handley hopes that other schools follow her lead.
"No other teams have JV teams; I do know that there is at least another school looking at the possibility," Handley said.
Although she wouldn't name the school, she did say that the idea of a JV squad isn't new for her or other programs that Northern plays.
"It's something that I have been looking at doing for awhile now," she said. "We just had to make sure we had the support from the administration and enough girls to compete."
Handley used the North Dakota schools from the DAC-10 conference as the model. Many of the programs, including perennial powers Dickinson State University, Jamestown College and Dakota State have JV teams. DSU won the NAIA national championship in 2000 and is a consistent national tournament qualifier.
But Handley's decision to field a team wasn't so much one of imitation; rather, it was out of necessity.
With only six players on the floor at once and several playing all the way around a rotation, Handley saw that some of her players weren't seeing the floor often enough and gaining that game experience.
It was glaringly apparent at the Frontier Conference tournament when the Skylights lost one of their top hitters in Lindsay Garcia to an ankle injury. With Garcia out, Handley was forced to play players who hadn't seen significant action for the entire season.
"It's getting to the point in our league where the top eight or nine players on a team are the court the whole time," Handley said. "With 14 or 15 girls on a team, that leaves a lot of girls not getting any playing time to get better. In volleyball, game experience is so important. With a JV team, we'll be able to offer that."
To be clear, playing on the JV squad isn't the same as redshirting. A player who plays JV will use up a year of eligibility just as if she were playing on the varsity. Still, it's a small price to play considering that very few players redshirt in the conference.
"If they are going to use up a year of eligibility, at least they will get to play some games, instead of getting in for a few points here and there," Handley said.
The Skylights will also benefit from a JV team because of their heavy concentration of freshmen, sophomores and junior college transfers that fill the roster.
"In two years, we will graduate possibly 11 players," Handley said. "I don't want to take a step back. We need our young players to get court time as soon as they come in to prepare them."
One reason JV teams aren't prevalent in volleyball in the Frontier is that volleyball programs aren't exactly overflowing with money in their budgets.
But Handley doesn't see her team being a budget burden. The squad has about seven games scheduled, with the ultimate goal being around 12 games this season. The team will face junior college competition from Williston State College, Sheridan Community College, Powell Community College and Jamestown's JV team, as well as compete in the Skylights Invitational early in the season.
Still, those games are relatively cost efficient, Handley pointed out. The Jamestown game will come on the same day that her varsity squad plays in Dickinson. With the varsity playing DSU, the JV will make the hour-and-a-half trip to Jamestown to play on the same night.
"It doesn't cost much more for us to travel together," Handley said. "We sat down with (vice chancellor) Chuck Jensen and crunched the numbers to see how much more it would cost. It was very workable."
Besides the support of the administration, Handley also got plenty of support from her current players. With 10 players returning and six recruits already signed, that leaves a lot of players fighting to get on the court. Handley has recruited knowing the JV program was a go and hopes to add at least two more players to have a total of 18 between the two teams.
"It's playing time," Handley said. "It doesn't matter what team it is, it is playing time and the girls like that. I think it will also be an advantage to Montana players who don't have the club volleyball experience that players from other states do."
The junior varsity team is not exactly cemented in the foundation of the program. Handley admitted that next year will be something of a trial period to see if the extra team works out logistically.
"We're going to try it and see how it works," Handley said. "If it turns out costing too much money or there isn't enough player development, we'll make a change. Hopefully, the other Montana schools pick it up."
In a perfect scenario, Handley sees the other Frontier schools adding JV teams and having conference varsity matches preceded by JV matches.
"How great would that be?" Handley said. "We go there and play a JV match and then the varsity match after that. It really doesn't cost anything more. It would work. Basketball plays two games in a night.
"I think this is going to benefit everyone," she added. "It gives our players the chance to play more games; it gives more players a chance to play volleyball, and brings more students to the school.