Havre Daily News Sports Editor
Usually preseason expectations are directly related to how good of a team you should be in the upcoming season. For example, a team with few or no expectations probably usually isn't supposed to be too good.
By that theory, the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team should be very good this season. As the Skylights prepare to open their 2005 season today at the Region I Challenge in Lewiston, Idaho, the expectations surrounding the team couldn't be higher.
The Skylights return almost every player from last year's team that finished 7-7 in the Frontier Conference regular season and third at the Frontier Conference volleyball tournament. With the addition of talented newcomers added to the returning experience, many people, including Northern head coach Lisa Handley, feel that this is the year the Skylights make a push for a conference title.
"I have very high expectations for this year and I hope the girls have the same expectations of themselves," Handley said. "You really have to believe if you want to win the conference. Hopefully, they have it in their mind. We've talked about it. But it really comes down to their confidence."
It's more than just people in Havre that think the Skylights are pretty good. Northern was picked to finish third again the Frontier Conference preseason coaches poll, but they also picked up two first-place votes, along with second-place Rocky Mountain College and perennial conference favorite Carroll College.
The reason for the Skylights' preseason accolades isn't just that they return so many players, but who they return.
Northern returns all six starters and several key subs from last year. The Skylights lost just four players - Katy Engstrom, Lindsay Garcia, Alicia Mannin and Melanie Walker.
Both Engstrom and Mannin were forced to end their careers because of injuries, Garcia graduated from school and got married, while Walker is the student assistant coach.
Leading the way for the returnees is a trio of all-conference performers in Jordan Fox, Emilee Madsen-Summers and Jasmine Mitchell
Fox earned first-team all-conference honors after leading the team in kills (380) and digs (307). Her performance was good enough to earn her conference newcomer of the year honors.
After battling a sore leg at the end of the season, Fox is back, 100 percent healthy and better than ever. Fox spent the summer playing doubles volleyball with Madsen-Summers in Utah. It seems to have made her game stronger.
"The thing about playing doubles volleyball it adds a whole new dimension to a player's game," Handley said. "The biggest improvement I've seen is her passing and her serve receive. She's the total package."
Fox was simply dominant at times, racking up big kill after big kill. However, teams started to game plan for her late in the season. This season, teams will try even harder to slow her down.
"It's going to be harder on her because they are going to key on her," Handley said. "But it's really going to open things up for our other weapons."
One of those weapons is the hard-hitting Mitchell. She earned honorable mention all-conference honors last season, despite playing with an extremely sore hitting shoulder for almost the entire season. She is still fighting the same sore shoulder this season, but will play through it.
"She'll have surgery on it once the season is over," Handley said. "She can still hit the ball hard. She is just going to have to play through the pain."
Mitchell was second on the team in kills with 280 and second on the team in blocks with 58. Handley believes those numbers will get even better.
"Jasmine came back in good shape," Handley said. "Foot-wise she is much faster and quicker and has been putting up a huge block at the net."
For Madsen-Summers, it really is pick your poison for opponents who she decides to set the ball to. She earned second-team all-conference last season, leading the team in assists with 980, while managing to get married and have a baby after the season. Because of her change in family situations, she wasn't able to play spring ball with the Skylights, but it hasn't looked like it.
"She came in ready to play," Handley said. "The only thing that is missing from where she was last year is her vertical. We need to get her vertical up, that will be the difference if we run a 5-1 or a 5-2 offense."
If Northern runs an offense with multiple setters, Handley will choose between junior Christine Smith and newcomer Tracee Tesch.
"Christine brings a huge block to the net," Handley said. "We brought her in a lot blocking situations last year. Tracee has great hands, runs a team well and does not seem like a freshman. Tracee could see a lot of time on the floor."
"Our middles are playing really well this year," Handley said. "They've really matured a lot as volleyball players."
McPherson led the Skylights in blocks and was among the league leaders. O'Haire was also a solid at the net, while Roth came off the bench and played frequently.
"Jeanna was in the gym was twice a week this summer and I can definitely see the benefit," Handley said. "Tera has started to get on top of the ball, which we've worked on. In truth, Ashley is really pushing for a starting spot. Between the three of them, I'm not sure who is going to be starting." Lost in the shuffle of the big outside hitters and the steadily improving middle blockers is right-side hitter Julie Henderson, who is coming off a very good season. Henderson led the team in aces with 48, was third on the team in kills, fourth in digs and was generally one of Northern's best passers.
"Julie has a chance to be all-conference this year," Handley said. "I think she got a little overlooked last year. We put in a few new plays just for her and she's stepping up and being a leader on the floor. She could make a big difference for us this year."
Filling the all-important libero position will be junior Kelly Thorpe. After playing both setter and libero last year, Thorpe will focus on the latter this season. It's a move that Handley expects to pay dividends immediately.
"Kelly should be one of the top liberos in the conference," Handley said. "I think it will help she is playing the one position. Last year, setting really bothered her nagging back injury."
Northern also returns right-side hitter Heidi Fritchman and defensisve specialist Nicole Henderson to the squad after redshirting last season.
Besides Tesch, Handley signed three other recruits in hitters Hope Wirll, Rachel Mrdeza and Carlee Hoff.
Wirll, a 5-11 lefthander, is pushing for immediate playing time, while Hoff will redshirt. Handley wasn't sure whether Mrdeza would redshirt or suit up yet.
"Right now, Hope is probably our best serve-receiver," Handley said. "She can also get up and pound the ball. But she is also a freshman and kind overwhelmed with everything right now."