By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
If the rivalry between the Montana State University-Northern and University of Great Falls volleyball team was heated before, Saturday night was like adding a straight shot of gasoline.
The Skylights capped a scintillating weekend of volleyball by outlasting UGF 19-30, 31-29, 20-30, 30-22, 15-4 in a five-game marathon in front of a boisterous crowd at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
The come-from-behind win over the Argos gave the Skylights a perfect 4-0 record on the weekend as well as the championship of their own invitational.
The initial success is something that head coach Lisa Handley had hoped for, but didn't exactly predict.
"That was our goal for the weekend," Handley said. "I knew we were capable of reaching it, but I was a little surprised how well we played this early in the season."
Perhaps the bigger surprise is the emergence of UGF from a volleyball pretender to a Frontier Conference contender.
The Argos, under first-year head coach Arunas Duda, rolled through their first three matches of the tournament, not losing a game in dominant wins over Williston State, Eastern Oregon and UM-Western."
"How about UGF?" Handley said. "I knew they would be much better. Arunas does a great job and I respect him as a coach, but their outside hitters were just awesome."
As for the rivalry reaching a higher level, Handley was coy, only saying, "It's on now."
It was on from the very beginning of the match as UGF rolled to an early lead. Northern played tight and committed some unforced errors early on.
"I thought they looked really nervous, especially since it was for the championship," Handley said. "They were just too tense. They weren't swinging normally and we just made some mistakes. All they needed to do was relax."
The Skylights didn't really relax in game one, falling 30-19. But they came out much looser in game two. Northern grabbed a 21-17 lead on an Ashley Roth block. From there the Skylights had to fight off fierce UGF rallies. The Argos tied the match at 28 and even took a brief 29-28 lead on a Becky Radiel tip.
However, Jordan Fox gave Northern the lead with back-to-back kills. UGF's Deidre Ranf knocked the ball wide on game point to give the Skylights the game.
"We talked about just relaxing after game one," Handley said. "We looked better in game two."
Still, UGF rolled to an early lead in game three, leading by as many as eight points in the game. Fox served Northern back into the game with three consecutive aces to trim the lead to 18-16. But the Argos ripped off a 12-6 scoring run to close out the game.
"I really called for someone to step up and take some leadership," Handley said. "We needed to step forward and want to take the serve and want to make the pass."
With Northern struggling to stay in the match, Handley went to her bench in game four and her reserve players responded.
Melanie Walker and Lindsay Garcia came in at opportune times and contributed some key blocks and serves.
"It's something that I knew could happen," Handley said. "I saw them do it earlier in the day against Williston. Melanie came in and gave us some big blocks, and we brought in people who served aggressively."
Fox's ace gave Northern an early 17-8 lead. From there the Skylights rolled to a 30-22 win, forcing the match into a fifth and deciding game.
"This is a team that's not going to roll over and die," Handley said. 'They fight for every single point."
In game five, Northern put the game away early, grabbing an 8-3 lead on solid play from Jeanna McPherson and Jasmine Mitchell. The duo racked up four three kills and three blocks as the Skylights in the big run. UGF committed some costly mistakes down the stretch to give Northern a few free points. A block and a kill from Tera O'Haire and a kill from Jordan Fox got the Skylights to match point at 14-4. Henderson put the match away with an ace.
"Oh my God, we played so well together," Henderson said excitedly after the match. "Our communication was great and we just played fantastic."
Mitchell led Havre with 13 kills and six blocks. Fox had a brilliant game, notching nine kills, 10 digs and tying a school record with nine aces in the match.
"Jordan really took upon that leadership role I demanded in game four," Handley said. "Her serving was huge. She really stepped up for us."
The setting duo of Emily Madsen and Kelly Thorpe combined for 48 assists. Henderson added nine kills and 10 digs.
Earlier in the day, Handley used her deep bench in a three-game waxing of Williston State. She rested her front line of Fox, Mitchell, McPherson and Roth in the match.
Still, the Skylights barely missed a beat in a 30-13, 30-16, 30-22 win.
"We could see how deep we were in practice and the scrimmages," Handley said. "I was just really happy with the way the girls played."
Katy Engstrom led Northern with 13 kills, four aces and eight digs. Tera O'Haire added 10 kills and five blocks, while Garcia added eight kills and four aces.
On Friday, Northern opened the tournament with a 30-27, 30-23, 31-33, 30-25 win over a very pesky Eastern Oregon squad.
EOU gave the Skylights a firm test, playing scrappy defense and getting timely kills to keep most games close.
"That match was exactly what we needed to start the tournament," Handley said. "Eastern Oregon played tremendous defense and made our girls work. That game set the pace for us for the rest of the tournament."
The Skylights found themselves trailing early in game one, but rallied behind an ace and a kill from Henderson to take a 27-26 lead. An EOU unforced error and a Roth block put the Skylights ahead 29-27. A big Fox kill down the line gave Northern the game.
"Julie played every match of the tournament and she played consistent the whole weekend," Handley said. "When we needed a kill or a big point, Julie stepped up and got it done."
Said Henderson: "I prepared all summer for this. And I know all the other girls did too. We were ready for the season to start."
Northern handled Eastern in game two, breaking open a 22-21 game with an 8-2 run to grab the win.
Eastern took advantage of some Northern hitting mistakes to win game three 33-31.
Northern broke open a 22-22 tie in game four when Henderson served six consecutive points that included four kills and a combined block from Roth and Fox. Fox ended the game and match with a deft kill on an overpass.
Fox led a group of five Skylights in double figures in kills with 16. Mitchell had 14 kills and six blocks, while McPherson and Roth combined for 23 kills and 12 blocks. Alicia Mannin picked up a match-high 22 digs, while Madsen and Thorpe had 31 and 28 assists, respectively.
"Alicia was awesome," Handley said.