By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
One day of driving and one day of sitting around, topped off with a match in a gym roughly the size of a shoebox. It's not exactly the most enjoyable start to the longest road trip on the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team's schedule.
The Skylights open their lengthy road trip tonight when they face the Westminster College Griffins at the Payne Gymnasium in Salt Lake City.
Northern, 2-3 in the Frontier Conference and 7-11 overall, is coming off a less than inspiring conference loss to the University of Great Falls and a nonconference loss the University of North Dakota.
Still, head coach Lisa Handley is excited about this weekend, not so much the trip, but the opportunity for her team to add to its conference win total.
Westminster, also 2-3 in conference play and 4-9 overall, is a bit of an unknown to Handley, who hasn't seen the Griffins play live, only on tape.
"They're kind of hot and cold," Handley said. "They don't have a lot of wins, but they're a good team. They took Carroll to five games and Tech to four. It certainly won't be an easy match"
Westminster is led by sophomore outside hitter Maxi Miller, who is fifth in the conference in kills. Senior center Brittany Enniss is an on-court leader and ranks seventh in the league in assists.
Besides contending with the Griffins, the Skylights will have to contend with the low ceiling of Payne Gymnasium.
"It's a very tough home court. It's awful. The ceiling is really low and not regulation height. You really have to focus on keeping digs and passes low."
Northern may have a slight advantage in terms of support. Westminster isn't exactly known for having large crowds. With Utah natives Jordan Fox and Emilee Madsen returning home, Handley hopes to have some Skylight fans cheering them on.
"It's going to be a homecoming for Emilee and Jordan," Handley said. "With all of their family and friends watching, I expect them to play well."
When Fox and Madsen play well, Northern usually plays well. Fox is third in the conference in points and kills per game and fourth in hitting percentage. Madsen is fifth in the conference in assists.
The second part of the road trip doesn't get any easier. Northern will leave Salt Lake City early Saturday morning and drive six hours to Dillon to play a solid UM-Western squad later that evening.
The Bulldogs are tied for last in the Frontier with a 1-4 record and a 6-11 record overall, with one of those losses coming to Northern early in the season.
"I think they are a different team from when we first played them," Handley said. "I know they are going to serve us tougher this time around. I am sure they've heard that our serve-receive is our main weakness.
Indeed, when Northern has struggled this season it usually coincides with a poor serve-receive performance. Handley and the Skylights certainly have logged their hours on the practice court working on it.
The Skylights also worked on their own serving this week. It will be a key for Northern in beating the Bulldogs and containing all-conference middle blocker Katherine Sunwall.
Besides Sunwall, Western gets contributions from defensive specialist Kendall Bradley, outside hitter Shannon O'Keefe and setter Lindsay Scott.
"Western is always tough at home," Handley said. "Plus they will have some added incentive after we beat them up here."
Northern has yet to win a road conference match, but Handley hopes to change that this weekend
"It all comes down to how much they want to win," she said. "When they want to win, they have a look about them. I didn't see it against UGF. Hopefully, I will see it this weekend."