by Ryan Divish
The Montana State University-Northern volleyball team ended its season with a win, which is something that many teams can't say. However, the Skylights would rather have had that win come in the Frontier Conference tournament championship game, instead of the consolation game.
The Skylights bounced back from a disappointing loss to Carroll College in the semifinals to defeat Lewis-Clark State 30-26, 32-30, 30-23 in the consolation match of the tourney to finish third in the tournament.
"I hope the girls know how proud I am of them," said head coach Lisa Handley. "I am proud of the way they played all weekend and all season."
Northern opened the tournament with a 30-26, 30-28, 21-30, 26-30, 19-17 win over UM-Western on Friday night at the HPER Complex.
The Skylights shook off seven-point leads in Games 1 and 2, to take both games by scores of 30-26 and 30-28.
Up 2-0, Northern couldn't put away the pesky Bulldogs. UM-Western battled back behind the hitting of Kendall Bradley, Katherine Sunwall and Jenny Finlay to win Games 3 and 4 by scores of 30-21 and 30-26.
"Our passing just broke down," Handley said. "That was the difference. In the first two games, we passed very well. We were hitting really well, but we just couldn't get a pass to get to our hitters."
But if one thing this season has proven, it's the Skylights' ability to win five-game matches. Northern twice weathered Western match-points, before ending the marathon with Emilee Madsen serving back-to-back aces to win the match.
"My girls aren't afraid of playing from behind," Handley said. "They just seem to be more focused when we're down in matches."
Jordan Fox led Northern with 23 kills, while Jasmine Mitchell and Julie Henderson added 17 and 16 kills, respectively. Madsen dished out 51 assists and picked up 17 digs. Katy Engstrom added 14 digs for the Skylights.
With the win, Northern advanced to the semifinals against the tournament's No. 1 seed Carroll College. The momentum of the Skylights' win over Western disappeared in a 30-18, 30-27, 30-23 loss to the Saints.
"You could see how nervous they were during warm-ups," Handley said. "Our serve-receive broke down early in Game 1. They just served us right off the floor. We battled back in Game 2. Carroll just has so many weapons."
Northern did not help itself, accumulating only one block in the match.
"We couldn't get a block to save our lives," Handley said. "Carroll played an ugly match against UGF in the first round. I think they took it out on us a little."
Fox had 10 kills in the loss for Northern. Madsen dished out 26 assists, while Engstrom picked up nine digs.
With Northern all but needing a win over Carroll to continue its season into the regional playoffs, it would have been understandable if the Skylights were ready to call it a season. But they weren't.
Handley and the players held a team meeting after the Carroll loss to discuss their options.
"Jeanna McPherson reminded them that the reason they came to Northern was to play volleyball and the season wasn't over with the one loss and that there was still a match to win. The girls stepped up and did that."
Northern didn't just win. It won emphatically, sweeping LC State 30-26, 32-30, 30-23.
"The fact that we beat them in three says a lot about this team," Handley said. "It was a total team effort. Everyone played well, and more importantly everybody got to play."
Fox led the balanced attack with 12 kills, while Mitchell added eight kills and five blocks. Madsen dished out 42 assists, while Engstrom and Kelly Thorpe had seven digs each.
"It was a great way to end the season," Handley said. "The girls were excited. We had some great fans down there cheering us on, which made it even better. They were so crazy. They really helped us out all weekend."
Northern narrowly missed out on regional competition with Albertson College sneaking in just ahead of them. But Handley still found plenty to be positive about.
"This has been a great season for our program," she said. "Northern hasn't finished third in a long, long time. We also finished with a .500 record and winning overall record. The foundation has definitely been laid for next year. We return everybody but Lindsay (Garcia) and this is something we can build off."
For her efforts this season, Fox was named first-team all-conference along with conference newcomer of the year.
"We haven't had a first-team all-conference selection since I've been here," Handley said. "Jordan had a great season. She really deserves it."
Madsen was named to the second-team, while Mitchell picked up all-conference honors.
"To have three players selected is very good," Handley said.
Even with everything that her team accomplished, Handley can't help but be a little disappointed.
"I really just wasn't ready for the season to end," she said. "But I am proud of everything those girls have done this season."