By Ryan Divish
Havre Daily News Sports Editor
Montana State University-Northern volleyball coach Lisa Handley is starting off the season with a simple philosophy concerning playing time:
The players who know how to win and who want win will be on the floor.
Obviously, practice doesn't offer the setting for Handley put her philosophy to work, but this weekend will.
The Skylights open their 2004 volleyball season on Friday as they host four teams for the Skylights Volleyball Invitational tournament at the MSU-Northern gymnasium. The Skylights will open on Friday at 11 a.m. against Eastern Oregon University.
While every coach wants players on the floor that know how to win, not every coach is in Handley's situation. She has enough talent and depth to put another player out there if she needs to.
Northern returns 10 players from last year's squad, including five players who all started matches at some point during the season.
Juniors Lindsay Garcia and Julie Henderson, sophomores Tera O'Haire, Kelly Thorpe, Katy Engstrom and Jeanna McPherson all started games last season and spent significant time on the floor.
Also returning is back-up setter Christine Smith and redshirts Jasmine Mitchell, Melanie Walker and Alicia Mannin.
"Katy, Tera, Jeanna and Julie all came back much stronger than last season," Handley said. "They didn't just play this summer, they got in the weight room and got physically stronger it's really shown early on. Kelly also worked on her speed. She came back much quicker than last year which is something she needed to do."
The high number of returnees would leave most teams set in terms of personnel. But Handley hit the recruiting path hard and added five talented recruits for this season.
Transfers Emilee Madsen, Jordan Fox, Ashley Roth and Heidi Fritchman are all immediate-impact players with freshman Nicole Henderson redshirting as she recovers from knee surgery.
"Emilee and Jordan are just solid all-around players," Handley said. "They have played so much volleyball in their careers. Ashley has been a bit of surprise. We knew she was good around the net, but her defense and serve-receive have been fantastic."
That leaves 14 players fighting for six valuable spots on the floor - hence Handley's philosophy.
"It comes down to who knows how to win and who wants to win," Handley said. "Those will be the girls on the floor."
Handley is holding no favorites and not allowing last year's performance to enter into her decision. Everything is based solely on how the players are performing this season.
"Our returning starters are fighting for their spots like everyone else," Handley said. "Just because you started last season doesn't mean you automatically get to start this season."
Because of that type of thinking, the Skylights have been slightly driven in practice.
"Practice has been very intense," Handley said. "They've been working very hard because they're fighting for those starting spots. It's been great motivation."
Unfortunately for Handley, the question of who will be on the floor hasn't been completely answered. Northern has had just two scrimmages and neither offered any clear answers.
Instead, Handley will use this weekend to help determine her lineup. Northern will play four matches against solid opponents and use several different lineups and combinations, trying to find the most effective group of players.
"We will be testing things out," she said. "We will be looking for who has the ability to win. I don't care if they're not the prettiest technical player, if they go hard on every point, they will be out there."
It's not like the Skylights can take points off this weekend. If they do, they will get beat. because the teams coming in our quality squads. A pair of conference foes will be in Havre. UM-Western was one of the top teams in the Frontier Conference last season, but Northern upset the Bulldogs in the first round of the conference tournament. University of Great Falls brought in a new coach, Arunas Duda, and 10 new players to revive its struggling program.
"Western is going to be out for blood," Handley said. "They weren't exactly happy about losing to us last season and they will want to come in prove a point early on.
"UGF is going to be much better. Their coach is so enthusiastic and positive that his girls are going to play hard for him at all times. He also brought in some good players, so they will be much improved. Western and UGF are the only two conference teams we're going to play in the preseason so these matches are important for us to see where we're at in comparison to other teams in the conference."
There is also an added bonus of playing conference foes early - send a message to other teams. Handley and her players felt more than a little slighted after being picked second to last in the conference preseason coaches' poll.
"The players are definitely motivated by that," Handley said. "We want to prove that Northern can get it done in the conference all year long."
Williston State or Eastern Oregon will round out the tournament. Handley isn't quite as familiar with either squad, but expects them to both have solid players.
Regardless of who is across the net, Handley expects her team to play the same way.
"We need to come out and play to win," she said. "Our team motto has been: 'Believe.' We need to believe in ourselves, in each other and in our team."