By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Call the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team consumer friendly. Because people who pay to watch the Skylights play, certainly get their money's worth.
Northern thrilled a packed MSU-Northern gymnasium Thursday night with a scintillating 29-31, 31-29, 25-30, 30-10, 15-10 Frontier Conference win over the Rocky Mountain College Battlin' Bears.
With the win, Northern (5-3, 10-10 overall) moves into sole possession of third place in the conference knocking the Bears (4-4, 9-11 overall) down to fourth.
Let it never be said, that the Skylights don't make a match interesting.
Northern rode a rollercoaster of emotions throughout the match, finishing with dominant performances in Games 4 and 5 - including 15 consecutive points - to seal the match.
"We give people who come to watch their money's worth," said Skylight outside hitter Jordan Fox.
"Why would you want to come and watch three games and go home?" joked Skylights head coach Lisa Handley. "That would be boring."
Thursday night was anything but boring.
It started off with all the trappings of a typical Frontier Conference battle as both teams battled back and forth in Game 1.
After Rocky went up 9-4, the Skylights battled back to tie it up at 11 on a block from Julie Henderson and Jeanna McPherson.
The two teams traded points and leads with neither going up by more than two points until Northern took a 27-24 lead on a Rocky hitting error.
The Skylights seemed primed to put the Bears away. But it didn't happen, Rocky ripped off three consecutive points to tie the match at 27. Northern grabbed a 28-27 lead on a Henderson kill and pushed it to game point on a Rocky hitting error.
Still, Northern couldn't get the game winner as Rocky reeled off four consecutive points to take the game 31-29.
"It's frustrating to get that close and not finish," Handley said. "They get tight when it get's close. They stop playing to win and play just to hang on.
Game 2 was almost the same as Game 1, only with a different outcome. This time it was Rocky's turn to get to game point. Only this time, the Skylights weren't playing to hang on. A Henderson tip, a Fox kill and a Jeanna McPherson kill stole the game away from the Bears.
But any momentum from Game 2's dramatic win dissipated in Game 3 under a mountain of Skylight hitting errors.
"It just started off bad," Handley said. "It's the same thing that hurt us in the past, we started killing ourselves with hitting errors. We were hitting them into the net and out of bounds."
Of Northern's 30 errors in the match, the bulk of them came in Game 3, as Rocky rolled to an 18-10 lead and never looked back, cruising to a 30-25 win.
Being down 2-1 would cause many teams to panic slightly, but not Northern. Nope, the Skylights are very comfortable playing from behind. They've been in that position several times this season.
"A lot of teams have up and down nights," Fox said. "Even when we get down like that, we never feel like we're out of it. We've been down plenty of times in matches and have come back."
It would be do different against Rocky as Northern played some of its best volleyball of the season in Game 4.
The Skylights grabbed a 13-8 lead on a monster Jasmine Mitchell kill. The lead continued to balloon behind some impressive blocking and solid hitting.
Trailing by nine, Rocky cut the lead to 18-10 on a Skylight hitting mistake. That was the last point Rocky would get in the match. Northern ripped off 12 consecutive points with Emilee Madsen serving to close out the match 30-10. Northern's performance in Game 4 could be described only as dominant.
Of the 12 points, only two came from Rocky errors. The rest came from an assortment of stuff blocks, booming kills and Madsen aces. Mitchell was big factor, accounting for two kills and two blocks in the run, while Jeanna McPherson continued to be a force at the net, picking up four assisted blocks.
"I was extremely pleased with the way we played in Game 4," Handley said. "We took the early lead and didn't let them back in the game. Emilee really took charge and served tough."
Besides serving up two aces in Game 4, Madsen keyed the Skylights offense with solid decision making on her sets.
"Emilee made great decisions in Game 4," Handley said. "I got on her a little after the third game because I thought she got into a little bit of a rut with her sets and was running the same stuff. She did a great job of mixing things up in Game 4 and really spreading it around."
With the Game 4 win, the Skylights forced a deciding fifth game. While many teams tighten up at the thought of the of that fifth game, Northern thrives. The Skylights came into the match with a perfect 3-0 record in five-game matches. They moved it to 4-0 against Rocky.
Northern carried the momentum from its dominant performance in Game 4, rolling to 6-3 lead on a Katy Engstrom ace. Rocky battled back cutting the lead to 7-6 on a Courtney Arthurn tip. The Skylights answered emphatically as Henderson blasted a kill off of Rocky defensive specialist Jacque Walen's chest to push the lead to 8-6.
Henderson's "six pack," as its called in volleyball, spurred the Skylights. Northern pushed the lead to 11-6 on a Henderson ace.
Rocky cut the lead to two on kills from Shanda Veldhuisen and Arthurn and a block from Megan Longnecker, but would get no closer. An O'Haire kill, a Fox ace and a Mitchell block on a back-row attack put the game away.
"I'm proud of the way we came back," Handley said. "They really believed in themselves and in each other."
The performance was a far cry from Northern's 3-1 loss at Rocky three week's ago.
"There was a big difference," Fox said. "The first time we played them our passing struggled and we weren't ready for some of their serves. Our passing was much better tonight. We had confidence because we worked so much on serve-receive this week. We were ready for any type of serve."
Said Handley: "There is no comparison. Our passing was better and we didn't get down ourselves when mistakes happened."
Mitchell led a balanced Northern attack with 17 kills and four blocks. Fox had a solid all-around game with 15 kills, eight digs and two aces. Henderson had 13 kills, six digs, five blocks and four aces. McPherson and O'Haire combined for 17 kills and seven blocks, while Madsen dished out 57 assists and served up a match-high eight aces.
"We have so many talented hitters that if one of us has an off night, we know somebody is going to step up," Fox said.
Northern will hopefully ride the wave of emotion and confidence into tonight's showdown with Carroll College. It will be the Skylights' annual "Pack the House" promotion with satellite radio being given away.
"I hope this gives us some confidence when we play Carroll," Handley said. "Hopefully, we can pick up right where we left off against Rocky."
Northern and Carroll will square off tonight at 7 p.m. at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
MSU-Northern def. Rocky Mountain
29-31, 31-29, 25-30, 30-10, 15-10
RMC - Kills 55 (Megan Longnecker 16, Shanda Veldhuisen 14), Assists 46 (Hailey Pearce 45), Aces 7 (Tammy Sobieraj 2), Digs 61 (Jen Buening 19, Hailey Pearce 10), Blocks 9 (Courtney Arthurn 5).
MSU-N - Kills 66 (Jasmine Mitchell 17, Jordan Fox 15, Julie Henderson 13, Tera O'Haire 9, Jeanna McPherson 8), Assists 59 (Emilee Madsen 57), Aces 19 (Madsen 8, Henderson 4, Fox 3, Katy Engstrom 3), Digs 47 (Madsen 10, Engstrom 8, Fox 8), Blocks 14 (McPherson 6, Henderson 5, Mitchell 4).