By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
As much as they would like to forget it, the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team and head coach Lisa Handley can't put their 30-21, 30-23, 30-18 loss to the University of Great Falls a month ago out of their minds.
But maybe that's not a bad thing. It certainly offers a little motivation for the Skylights in tonight's match against the Argos at 7 p.m. at the McLaughlin Center in Great Falls.
"We want to show them that wasn't us," said junior setter Emilee Madsen. "No one was feeling up to par that game. We just didn't show up ready to play."
If it wasn't the worst loss of the season, it was in the top three. Handley was so upset with her team, she rewarded them with a 5:30 a.m. practice the next day. But she doesn't want to hold early morning sessions as consequences
"They've got to do it for themselves," Handley said. "I don't want to have to hold threats above their head. I shouldn't need to threaten them. It's Great Falls, for God's sake."
Ah, there are the magic words. The Skylights and Argos rivalry has reached a new level with arrival of new UGF head coach Arunas Duda.
Under the direction of Duda, the Argos have improved vastly in terms of talent and on-court play. The earlier defeat of Northern is a perfect example. It was UGF's last win in conference.
"They're a dangerous team," Handley said. "They certainly have a mental edge, knowing they beat us in three games and we needed five to beat them."
To be fair to the Skylights (5-6 in conference, 10-14 overall), they were beset by a flu bug and some injuries. But Handley isn't allowing that as a reason for the way they played.
"We need to be better at staying at home on defense," Handley said. "We got sucked in and they just hit sharp angle shots and got kills every time."
UGF (2-9 in conference, 8-18 overall) also hit very well in the match. With a balanced attack led by freshman middle blocker Ashley Harris and outside hitters Becky Radiel and Carolina Hapke, the Argos racked up 35 kills in just three games.
But it wasn't just the Argos' hitting that was a problem. The Skylights' blocking, which leads the conference, was basically nonexistent. Northern had just one block in the entire match, compared with UGF's 10.
"That's ridiculous," Handley said. "Our blocking needs to be better. We looked totally lost out there the last time we played. We didn't know who to block. We need to a better job of anticipating where the ball is going to be set to."
Besides the defense and blocking, Northern didn't help itself out by committing 34 hitting errors for a paltry 0.010 hitting percentage.
"We need to play much cleaner than we have lately," Handley said. "We can't win matches by committing so many unforced errors."
"There was just a complete breakdown," Madsen said. "No one was ready to play. We weren't very healthy at the time, but we just weren't mentally ready to go."
Health won't be a problem this time for Northern. The Skylights are as close to 100 percent as they have been in a few weeks.
"We're much more healthy this time," Handley said. "I fully expect to play much better."
Conversely, the Argos are not healthy. Setter Hayley Wright and outside hitter/libero Brittany Prater are both banged up and will not play tonight.
"It's too bad they won't be at full strength," Handley said. "But sometimes other people really step up when there are injuries."
Regardless of who is on the floor and who isn't, the Skylights aren't about to take UGF lightly.
"We always get more fired up to play them," Madsen said. "It's a rivalry. The fans are more into it. Anything can happen."
Hopefully for Handley, what happens is that the newly reinstated 6-2 offense flourishes against the Argos. With Kelly Thorpe once again sharing the setting duties with Madsen, it has taken some time for the Skylights to readjust.
"We're definitely better off blocking-wise," Madsen said. "We're still trying to get used to different setters running the offense. It's taking a little time but we're getting better with it every game."
Handley and Madsen are just hoping the Skylights are better tonight than their last game against UGF.
"We need to go in there with confidence and prove to them we can play better," Handley said.
Said Madsen: "Everyone's been preparing to play them again since right after that match ended."