By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Maybe it's the opportunity to sleep in their own beds. Maybe it's the opportunity to play in front of family and friends. Maybe it's the ear-splitting music and rowdy atmosphere in the Montana State University-Northern gymnasium.
Whatever it is, the MSU-Northern volley ball team is unbeatable at home this season. The Skylights swept a pair of weekend matches, including a scintillating five-game win over Montana Tech, to even their record at 2-2 in the conference, and serve notice that they will be a team to be reckoned with the rest of the season, especially at home.
Thus far this season, Northern is a perfect 6-0 in the MSU-Northern gymnasium. And the Skylights' performance this weekend showed that their home record may remain perfect for a while.
Northern cruised to an easy 30-19, 30-25, 30-24 victory over Lewis-Clark State on Friday night. While the Skylights made the win seem easy, beating LC isn't. In fact, it was the first time ever Northern has beaten the Warriors in any setting. And they did it in dominant fashion.
The Skylights set the tone in the first game, rolling to a 12-5 lead. LC cut the lead to 14-9, but got no closer as the Skylights capitalized on several Warrior mistakes to take the game 30-19. Games two and three were closer at times, but Northern was never in trouble at any point.
"They made a lot of errors that young teams make," Northern head coach Lisa Handley said of the Warriors. "The biggest thing with LC is that they aren't a real tough serving team. They hit a lot of top-spin serves that are easier to pass, which is big for us. Any team that serves easy, I feel like we should beat."
Indeed, Northern was able to make quality passes to setter Emilee Madsen, and she was able to sit back and choose from the Skylights' vast array of weapons, racking up 45 assists.
"I thought Emilee made great decisions and really spread the ball around," Handley said. "She mixed it up and got a lot of people involved in the offense. It's important that we have that, so we aren't always relying Jordan (Fox) all the time.
Fox still led a balanced Skylight attack with 12 kills and 13 digs. Jasmine Mitchell and Jeanna McPherson also had solid games, picking up 10 kills each. Eight Skylights contributed to the team's 52 kills in the match. It was a far cry from the Skylights' recent road woes.
"I think it makes a huge difference playing at home, especially for this team," McPherson said. "We seem to play more focused when were at home."
But it was McPherson's focus and offensive contributions that had Handley excited.
"Jeanna had a great weekend for us," she said. "She is trusting herself, trusting her setter and swinging hard. She's starting to become more aggressive. It's growth. She's still very young, but she is improving every game."
The win over LC was a perfect start to the weekend for the Skylights and the perfect situation for Handley.
"It was huge to play at home and play LC first this weekend," Handley said. "It gave us a lot of confidence going into Saturday's match against Tech."
Although early on against Tech, it didn't seem like it. Northern wasn't quite as aggressive as the night before and suffered some early hitting mistakes.
The Orediggers broke open a 20-18 game, capitalizing on three consecutive hitting miscues from Northern and a pair of aces from Collette Phillips to go up 25-18. Northern tried to battle back but got no closer, and Tech closed out the game with a 30-23 win.
"I can't say that we were playing bad," Handley said. "We were just kind of tentative and timid. That's not who we are as a team."
The second game didn't turn out much better, as the Diggers jumped out to a 14-5 lead. Northern cut the lead to 27-22 on a booming Fox kill. But, back-to-back hitting errors by Northern and an ace from Emily Glasson ended the rally at 30-22.
Down 2-0 wasn't exactly how Handley envisioned starting the match, but she remained calm during the brief intermission after game two.
"A lot of people asked me if I chewed them out, but that doesn't work with this team," Handley said. "I just tried to make them focus on our game plan. I think they were more focused on who they were playing and trying not to lose instead of focusing on things we needed to do to win."
Said Mitchell: "She wasn't too upset. She was just waiting for someone to step up and play well."
The method worked. Northern looked like a completely different team in game three as several players answered the call to step up. The Skylights jumped out to a 14-8 lead on a vicious Mitchell kill. The Skylights closed out the game with multiple kills from Fox, Mitchell, McPherson and Julie Henderson for a 30-19 win.
The momentum of the match was slowly switching to Northern's side after game three. Tech tried to regain the momentum, grabbing a 7-2 lead early in game four. But the Skylights rallied, tying the game at 13 on a set-kill from Madsen.
From there, the teams traded points until Fox ripped a ball past Tech's defense on an overpass to give Northern a 15-13 lead. It was a lead the Skylights would never relinquish. Tech hung around for much of the game, cutting the lead to two twice on Phillips' kills.
Clinging to a 27-25 lead, Northern got a clutch kill from O'Haire and a pair of mistakes from Tech to get to game point. Henderson sealed the game with a tough kill down the line for a 30-27 and sending the match into the decisive fifth game.
In game five, Northern found itself in familiar territory, trailing early. In both of the Skylights five-game matches this season, they trailed at the halfway point when the two teams switch sides. It's something that Handley pointed out to her team.
"When we were down 11-8, I reminded the girls that we were in the same exact position against Dickinson State and we won that match," she said.
Tech made the situation worse by pushing the lead to 13-8. Northern stopped the run with a big backrow kill from Fox. A tech hitting miscue, a block from McPherson and Henderson and an ace from Madsen cut the lead to 13-12. Tech answered with a Phillips kill on a quick set to get to match point.
Still, the normally poised Diggers, couldn't put the pesky Skylights away.
Back-to-back kills from Henderson and Mitchell tied the game at 14. A Katy Engstrom ace gave the Skylights the lead and match point at 15-14. Northern clinched the match on the most unlikely of kills as libero Kelly Thorpe's soft shot from the back room found the MSU-Northern gym floor, giving the Skylights the match.
"Everybody was out there talking on the floor and getting excited about every little play," Mitchell said. "Everybody stepped up and contributed. We said we didn't want to lose on our home floor this season and it really pushed us."
Said Handley: "The girls never game up on themselves and they never gave up on each other."
After a slow start, Fox finished with a team-high 15 kills. Henderson and Mitchell added 13 and 12 kills, respectively, and McPherson and O'Haire combined for 20 kills. Madsen had another solid night with 47 assists, while Thorpe had a match-high 20 digs. Tech was led by Phillips, who finished with a match-high 25 kills.
"Our middles - Jeanna and Tera - really hurt them," Handley said. "They were really keying on Jordan early and the middle was there for us. When we started getting production from the middle, it opened up the outside for Jordan and Jasmine and they took over."
With the wins, Northern improves to 2-2 in the Frontier Conference and 9-9 overall. But the wins mean more than just their place in the conference standings.
"These are huge wins, especially the win over Tech," Handley said. "They are one of the top teams in the conference and it shows that we are capable of beating the best"
Northern will return to action on Wednesday when it hosts the University of Great Falls at 7 p.m.
MSU-Northern def. Lewis-Clark State
30-19, 30-25, 30-24
L-C ST. - Kills 30 (Marie Lauder 6, Jenna Kirk 5), Assists 25 (Stephanie Wayt 13, Megan Dolny 8), Aces 1 (Amanda Browne), Digs 32 (Dawn Ingham 14), Blocks 2 (Lauder 1, Addy Hines 1).
MSU-N - Kills 52 (Jordan Fox 12, Jasmine Mitchell 10, Jeanna McPherson 10), Assists 45 (Emilee Madsen 42), Aces 8 (Lindsay Garcia 3, Madsen 2), Digs 46 (Jordan Fox 13, Kelly Thorpe 10), Blocks 3 (McPherson 2, Julie Henderson 2).
MSU-Northern def. Montana Tech
23-30, 22-30, 30-19, 30-27, 16-14
TECH - Kills 62 (Collette Phillips 25, Janalee Stokken-Holmes 12), Assists 55 (Becky Hancock 51), Aces 7 (Phillips 4), Digs 51 (Beka Hudson 21), Blocks 4 (Phillips 4).
MSU-N - Kills 67 (Jordan Fox 15, Julie Henderson 13, Jasmine Mitchell 12, Tera O'Haire 11), Assists 55 (Emilee Madsen 47), Aces 8 (Katy Engstrom 2, Madsen 2), Digs 64 (Kelly Thorpe 20, Fox 11, Engstrom 11), Blocks 7 (Fox 2, Henderson 2, Mitchell 2).