Havre Daily News Sports Editor
The first official home matches for the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team may be perhaps the biggest of the season.
The Skylights will open their Frontier Conference schedule this weekend with a pair of matches, starting tonight at 7 p.m. when they host the Rocky Mountain College Battlin Bears at the MSU-Northern gym. Things will get only tougher on Saturday, as Northern will face the defending conference champion Carroll College Saints.
With the exception of a scrimmage and last weekend's alumni match, Northern will be playing at home for the first time this season. The prospect of opening the conference season with two teams picked to finish at the top could be frightening for some teams, but not the Skylights. They're relishing it.
"I think for us it's a good thing," said Northern head coach Lisa Handley. "The girls are excited to have them come here to play us for the first conference games. If we were going on the road right away, it might be different."
Still, playing at home hasn't always been the best thing for the Skylights. In the past, Northern teams have wanted to play so well at home in front of family and friends that they have played tight and not to lose. With an upperclassmen-laden team, it shouldn't be a problem this season.
"I am counting on our maturity," Handley said. "In the past it may have been that way, but we were so young back then. We have older players now. They've played here in big matches, so it shouldn't be a problem."
It's the Skylights' experience that has them setting big goals for this season. One of those being an undefeated record at home in conference matches. They will get to take their first step towards that goal against Rocky tonight.
The Bears have their own high expectations. Rocky returns nine players from last year's team that finished 13-16 overall and an impressive 8-6 in conference play.
Rocky's returning talent is a big reason for the preseason prognostications. The Bears return senior starters Tammy Sobieraj and Jen Buening along with juniors Courtney Arthun, Erin Pehl, Jacque Walen and sophomores Shanda Veldhuisen, Kelly Fox and Hailey Pearce.
Buening was one of the top liberos in the conference a year ago and provides plenty of on-court leadership. Pearce's play earned her conference freshman-of-year honors last season, while Fox was on the all-freshmen team.
"They have some big hitters," said Skylights' senior Julie Henderson. "They are pretty big up front and put up a solid block."
Big indeed, Rocky has seven players that stand taller than 5-foot-10. Pehl and talented freshman Jessica Eliasson of Roundup are 6-1, while Larsen, Arthun, Sobieraj and Fox are all 5-10.
But it isn't the Bears' size that is their biggest weapon; it's their serving. Under long-time head coach Wade Wells, Rocky has been one of the most aggressive and successful serving teams in the conference.
They not only serve for aces, but serve well enough to take teams with poor serve-receive out of sync. Unfortunately for Northern, serve-receive has been one of the Skylights' deficiencies in the past. In Northern's loss to Rocky last season, the Bears' serving wreaked havoc on the Skylights' offense, never allowing to get in any type of rhythm.
"Because we run a fast offense, if the passes aren't there, we can't run it," Henderson said. "Our serve-receive has to be good for us to run our plays."
It seems like every year Handley battles with her team to be better with its serve-receive. Yet for all the preparing in practice, it really comes down to mental toughness in matches.
"It's very mental," Henderson said. "In reality, you only have about three seconds to shake off a mistake and make a better play the next time."
Said Handley: "We've worked on serve-receive all week. We just need to focus on our technique, and if they mistake just shake it off. We can't get frustrated."
Frustration may be the best word to describe the feeling teams get when they play Carroll College. The Skylights will try and take out their frustrations on a Carroll team that was once again picked to win the conference title.
To put it simply: the Saints win, against everyone. It seems like forever since Northern has defeated Carroll, and the Skylights have yet to under Handley. It's something that she hopes to change this year.
"I don't think our girls are intimidated by Carroll," Handley said. "I think they get frustrated. We know we have the ability and talent to win to beat them. They just do all the little things to win. They have a winning attitude."
Most teams step on the floor expecting to win, the Saints step on the floor knowing they will win.
"It's their tradition," Henderson said. "They know how to win. They've proven it in the past."
Carroll did some suffer losses from last year's squad, most notably Amy Heuiser, who resigned as head coach after six very successful years to spend more time with her family. Taking over the Saints is former Carroll player Maureen Boyle, who coached last year at Beloit College.
The Saints also lost All-American outside hitter Lena Mortensen, conference setter of the year Amber Carter and all-conference middle blocker Nicole Todorovich to graduation.
The Saints do return all-conference middle blocker Tiffany Rochelle, who is among the conference leaders in points, kills, blocks and hitting percentage. Also back is all-conference right-side hitter Natalie Solomon and middle blocker Rosie Meyn.
"They're very balanced this year," Handley said. "They don't have one big hitter they go to, they get contributions from everybody."
One player they probably won't be getting contributions from is setter Katie Polette, who went down with an injury in last weekend's UM-Western tournament. Solomon and Kristy Tyrell have been sharing the duties since then.
Even without Polette, Handley believes beating Carroll will be difficult.
"We can't look at them as being down," Handley said. "They've won three out of their last four matches since she got hurt. They've had several players really rise to the occasion and step up their play."
Northern will be without one of its key players for the Carroll match as starting middle blocker Jeanna McPherson will be at her sister's wedding. McPherson led the conference in blocks last season and her presence will be missed. Senior Ashley Roth will start in her place. It's a transition that should go smoothly.
"Ashley is very quick laterally and gets to a lot of balls that hitters wouldn't think she would," Handley said. "She's played well enough this season to be a starter. We just need other people to step up because Jeanna's gone. That's what Carroll has done."
Northern will look to counter with its array of talented upperclassmen led by seniors Henderson, Jordan Fox, Jasmine Mitchell, Emilee Madsen-Summers and junior Tera O'Haire.
Fox is among the top five in the conference in points, kills, digs and leads the Frontier in service aces with 18 on the season. Mitchell is still fighting an ailing shoulder, but should be fine.
Another player that will factor into Northern's success is true freshman Tracee Tesch. She has been solid in Northern's 6-2 offense and has impressed Handley early on.
"Tracee just does a fantastic job of running a team," she said. "She plays with so much poise."
The Skylights will need all of their weapons to come up with two wins on the weekend. It's not an impossible task, actually Handley believes it's very achievable.
"It's not that they think we are going to lose, it's that they have to believe we can win," Handley said. "Losing shouldn't even be a thought in their minds."