By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
In a season filled with skyscraping peaks and subterranean valleys, the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team's 30-20, 29-31, 13-30, 22-30 loss to Rocky Mountain College three weeks ago, might have been the lowest point of the season.
The Skylights will get a chance to erase that memory when they host the Battlin' Bears in a Frontier Conference rematch tonight at 7 at the MSU-Northern gymnasium
"The ladies are really excited to have the chance to play Rocky again," said Northern head coach Lisa Handley. "We played so poorly at their place, that we want to show them that we're a better a team."
Indeed, losing to Rocky wasn't a low point because of who it came against, rather the Skylights played so poorly that they would have lost to just about any team.
In the match, Northern's serve-receive game completely and totally fell apart under Rocky's tough serving. The Skylights surrendered 10 aces in the match. And the serves they did dig up, didn't exactly go where they wanted.
"Without our serve-receive, we couldn't do anything," Handley said. "It took us totally out of our game. We couldn't get a ball to our setter and then our hitters were struggling with the sets. Then we got frustrated after a few mistakes and started blaming each other."
Basically, Northern's whole game fell apart. The Skylights committed close to 50 unforced errors in the match. It doesn't matter if you're playing a high school team, that many errors can't possibly lead to a win.
It's no surprise that Handley and her team have spent a fair amount of time working on serve-receive this week. But it isn't so much a question of physical execution, it's more mental.
"The biggest thing is take shake it off when you make a mistake and focus on the next point," Handley said. "We can't get frustrated after a few mistakes."
Northern can't commit a bunch of mistakes against Rocky. Despite taking a massive hit by graduation, the Bears are tied with Northern for third place in the conference with identical 4-3 records.
Rocky is led by senior Megan Longnecker, sophomore Courtney Arthurn and freshman Kelly Fox. Longnecker ranks fourth in the conference in points per game (3.89) and kills per game (3.22). Arthurn ranks sixth in the conference in hitting percentage and had 10 kills against Northern in the first match. Fox, who is making a push for freshman of the year honors, racked up 12 kills against Northern.
"Kelly Fox is a very good player and Courtney Arthurn has been very consistent," Handley said. "They're a lot like us in that you don't know who they're going to get kills from each night."
Statistically, Northern ranks fourth in the nation in blocks at 2.9 per game, eighth in kills per game (13.6), ninth in assists per game (12) and 17th in hitting percentage (.193).
Northern's Jeanna McPherson ranks fourth in the nation in blocks per game at 1.3, while Jasmine Mitchell is eighth at just under 1.3. Jordan Fox ranks in 19th in kills at 3.5 per game. Setter Emilee Madsen, who was recently named Frontier Conference setter of the week for the second time, is 18th in the country in assists at 7.7 per game.
Still, the stats don't mean much if Northern doesn't play better than it did the first time.
"The ladies want to prove to themselves and to Rocky that wasn't our real team when we played the first time. They want to prove that they can beat them."
Besides Rocky, Northern will face conference-leading and 21st-ranked Carroll College on Friday night.
It certainly doesn't get any easier as the Saints come into Havre with a perfect 7-0 conference record and 16-4 overall record.
Don't let Carroll's unblemished conference record fool you. The Saints have had their fair share of tough matches. Montana Tech lost to Carroll in five games last week after winning the first two games of the match.
Northern, which hasn't had much success against Carroll in the past, played the Saints very tough in a 27-30, 30-27, 30-22, 30-27 loss in Helena. The Skylights led by as much as four points in each game, before succumbing to the Saints.
Handley believes both matches are perfect examples why Carroll's conference record is perfect.
"Carroll just knows how to win games," she said. "It's the reason they're undefeated. It doesn't matter if they are down eight points. They simply believe they are going to win every time they step on the floor."
That mentality can be very maddening to opponents.
"We have to believe that we have the players and the ability to beat them," Handley said. "I think we do."
It will be a tall task for Northern. Carroll is led by senior outside hitter Lena Mortensen and sophomore middle hitter Tiffany Rochelle.
Mortensen racked up 22 kills against the Skylights in the first meeting and ranks ninth in the conference in kills per game at 3.04. Rochelle, last year's freshman of the year, is sixth in the nation and second in the conference in hitting percentage. She also averages 3.16 kills per game.
"We have to try and shut down Lena," Handley said. "We need to make sure we have a double or triple block on her at all times. We also have to get a hand on every one of their attacks."
The Skylights must also avoid the unforced errors, particularly hitting mistakes, that plagued them last weekend. They can ill afford to get down four or five points to the Saints
"We can't give up big leads to Carroll," Handley said. "They don't let you back into games. They're a solid team that doesn't have many weaknesses. We need to get the ball up, keep it in play and let them make mistakes. That's what Tech did."
Northern will be running promotions for the two matches. Tonight's match is the Skylights' fourth annual poster contest. People are invited to bring posters supporting the Skylights. The best poster will $100 pizza party.
On Friday, Northern will hold its "Pack the House Night." A free satellite radio will be given away with in between games 2 and 3 of the match. The winner must be present to win.
"This weekend is big for us and the girls know that," Handley said. "I know we're going to come ready to play."