By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
The third time may have been the charm for UM-Western against the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team, but what is the fourth time going to be?
The Skylights and Bulldogs will meet yet again - the second time in as many weeks - in the opening round of the Frontier Conference Volleyball Tournament, today at 3 p.m.
A week ago, Northern fell victim to Western for the first time this season, dropping a heartbreaking 26-30, 33-31, 29-31, 30-26, 15-11 loss in Havre.
After defeating the Bulldogs twice earlier in the season, Western was certainly due for a win against Northern. But head coach Lisa Handley and the Skylights want to prove that that win was a one time affair.
"The girls are really excited to prove that we are the better team," Handley said. "We know that we didn't play that well against them."
Although the Skylights come into the tourney with the higher seed, they are feeling like an underdog.
"The regional rankings came out this week and Western was ranked ahead of us because we lost to them," Handley said. "It's because one of the regional rankers hasn't seen us play. But I don't mind because it has our players very fired up."
The regional slight has left Northern looking for respect. It's a familiar position for the Skylights.
A year ago, Northern came into the conference tourney as the sixth seed and proceeded to pull off a stunning 30-22, 30-20, 30-16 upset of none other than UM-Western.
"We know that they are going to remember last year," Handley said. "They certainly aren't going to be looking past us."
And with good reason. When the Skylights are playing well, they are one of the top teams in the Frontier Conference. Northern finished the year with a 7-7 record - the most conference wins in a season since 1993.
"There are not a lot of teams that wanted to play us in the first round," Handley said. "With our weapons, if we can get everyone playing well together at once for the entire weekend, we could legitimately win the tournament"
Northern first must get past a much-improved UM-Western squad. The Bulldogs are led by all-conference middle blocker Katherine Sunwall, who ranks among the conference leaders in kills, kills per game and blocks.
The Skylights got their fill of Sunwall in the last match as she racked up 24 kills, 10 digs and five blocks.
"I thought we allowed Katherine to get going with all of our overpasses," Handley said. "We did a good job of blocking against her, but it's tough to defend overpasses. She just gets a free shot."
But it wasn't just Sunwall that hurt the Skylights. Outside hitters Kendall Bradley and Jenny Finlay also reached double figures in kills. Their contributions helped lift Western to the win.
"Kendall and Jenny really stepped it up," Handley said. "It was the difference in the match. Now can they do it two matches in a row? That will be the determining factor."
However, another determining factor could be the health of junior right side hitter Julie Henderson, who injured her hamstring in the match against Western.
Henderson's range of motion has been limited, particularly laterally, which affects her play in the back row.
"It really affected us not having Julie's passing in the back row," Handley said. "She's starting to get more mobile, but right now she feels more comfortable playing at the net."
If Henderson can't play all the way around, she will add a libero for the match. Sophomore captain Katy Engstrom would take over the defensive position.
The change of lineup wouldn't exactly bother a very deep Skylight team. And it's not like Handley hasn't used a few lineups this season.
"Not one team in the conference has seen the same lineup twice from us," Handley said.
The basic core of hitters will remain constant for the Skylights as outside hitters Jordan Fox and Jasmine Mitchell will handle the bulk of the offensive duties. Fox is fifth in the league in kills and seventh in hitting percentage. Mitchell is eighth in hitting percentage and 11th kills.
Northern will also need a boost from its trio of middle blockers. Jeanna McPherson, Ashley Roth and Tera O'Haire are all capable of contributing.
McPherson is second in the conference in blocks, while Roth has been playing particularly well as of late.
Northern will continue to run its 6-2 offense with Emilee Madsen and Kelly Thorpe sharing the setting duties.
As for the rest of the tournament, Carroll College (13-1, 23-5) and Montana Tech (11-3, 18-11) are considered to be the pre-tourney favorites.
But Handley isn't about to rule her team out.
"The girls are so excited to play," she said. "All season these girls stepped it up in the primetime matches and it doesn't get any more primetime than this."