By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
It only seems like a year since the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team has played a home match. To be exact it's been 25 days since the Skylights took on an opponent in the friendly confines of the MSU-Northern gymnasium
Thankfully, the Skylights and head coach Lisa Handley will get to sleep in their own beds this weekend when they host a pair of Frontier Conference matches this weekend.
The Skylights will face the Lewis-Clark State Warriors tonight at 7 p.m. and take on the Montana Tech Orediggers Saturday night at 6 p.m. to open their home portion of their Frontier Conference schedule.
"We're ready to play at home," Handley said. "We're looking forward to our crowd and playing at home and sleeping in our own beds, instead of hotels.
"Hopefully, we play like we did the last time we play at home," she added.
Indeed, the last time Northern played at home, the Skylights were basically unbeatable. Northern rolled through four opponents en route to winning the Skylights Invitational tournament. However, that was the first week of the season.
Things have changed slightly since then. Northern struggled with its confidence, serve-receive and tough competition, losing nine of 10 matches, before defeating No. 22-ranked Dickinson State last Sunday in Glasgow.
"I think that win over Dickinson really gave them some confidence that they've been needing," Handley said. "They've just had a different aura about them this week. Just a little bit of cockiness that they need to have."
The other thing that Northern must have is a strong serve-receive game. It's been a problem for the Skylights off and on all season. At times the Skylights struggled receiving opponents' serves, consequently they aren't able to get into their offense, which means that big hitters like Jordan Fox and Jasmine Mitchell, who are second and third in the conference in hitting percentage, aren't getting opportunities to put balls away.
"If we have one weak point it's serve-receive," Handley said "We're not giving up a ton of aces, but its just not allowing us to get into any rhythm offensively."
To say that the Handley and her players have worked on serve-receive some this week would be the understatement of the century. She finally gave them a reprieve on Thursday
"They were a little surprised when we only spent a little time on it at practice," she said.
All the work is necessary because Northern desperately needs to get a conference win. The Skylights are sitting 0-2 in the conference after road losses to Carroll College and Rocky Mountain College.
Northern will be facing a bit of an unknown tonight in LC State. After wholesale losses to graduation, the Warriors return a handful of players and several new places. Making things even more difficult is that Handley hasn't seen LC play live this season.
"I really have no idea about LC," Handley said. "We've watched part of one tape of them, but it's hard to tell from one tape"
One thing Handley is certain of is that senior Addy Hines is returning for the Warriors.
Hines, a middle blocker from Kalispell, has 63 kills and 29 blocks on the season.
"She has always been very tough against us," Handley said. "I expect her to be a big part of their attack."
Hines has to be. She and outside hitter Amanda Paige are the only upperclassmen on the Warriors roster. The rest of the team is made up of all sophomores and freshmen.
However, they are talented underclassmen. Sophomore Ashli Bever leads the team with 78 kills while picking up 90 digs and 19 blocks on the season. True freshman Molly Hornfeldt is second on the team in kills with 76 and 18 blocks. LC has been using two setters this season with freshman Stephanie Wayt and sophomore Megan Dolny.
LC State has a 3-7 record on the season and an 0-1 record in conference with a tough five-game loss to Montana Tech, Northern's opponent on Saturday night.
The Orediggers were one of the top teams in the conference last season, but graduation and some key injuries and a brutal non-conference schedule have led to a 7-8 record this season.
The Diggers lost all-conference libero Kaila Minehan to graduation, while all-conference outside hitter Marin Audet has been sidelined much of the season with a shoulder injury, as has starter Liz Marsik.
However, senior Janalee Stokken-Holmes has filled their production quite ably. Stokken-Holmes leads the conference in kills per game, hitting percentage and points per game.
"She wasn't going to play this season after getting married and graduating," Handley said. "But she decided to come back and play this season"
Besides Stokken-Holmes, the Diggers also return senior setter Becky Hancock, senior middle blocker Collette Phillips, defensive specialist Beka Hudson and junior outside hitter Sage Dubois.
Hancock leads the conference in assists at 10.76 per game, almost three assists more than Northern's Emilee Madsen, who is second in the conference at seven assists per game.
"It seems like she's been there forever," Handley said. "She's a great floor leader and keeps them going no matter if they're up or down. And she makes them run the quickest offense in the league."
Phillips and Dubois are also capable of big offensive games while Hudson takes over the libero position.
"It's Tech," Handley said. "We know they're going to keep every ball in play, run an extremely fast offense and have the toughest servers in the conference."
The Diggers have played that way under long-time head coach Marilyn Tobin. And Handley admits her team must play well to win.
"I'm a big believer in preparing your team more than preparing for the other team," Handley said. "We know what things we have to do well to win games."
Those things would be the aforementioned serve-receive as well as avoiding unforced errors.
Northern certainly has the weapons to take both matches. Fox is second in the conference in points at 4.15 per game and second in kills at 3.49 per game. Mitchell is second in hitting percentage, blocks per game and sixth in kills and points per game. Jeanna McPherson leads the conference in blocks at 1.42 per game, but has been slowed by a bad ankle. McPherson should play this weekend, though.
"Jeanna wants to play," Handley said. "It's still bothering her some, but the adrenaline of the match will help her. I'm sure she's going to try. She's pretty stubborn."
As a team, Northern leads the conference in blocks at 3.07 per game and digs at 17.92 per game.
"We've talked all year about playing to win," Handley said "We need to play to win, especially at home."
NOTES: Tonight's game is Maroon-Gold night with fans being asked to sport those colors. Free Skylights posters will be given away. Former Havre High and Tech standout Shaela Evenson is an assistant coach for the Diggers.