Havre Daily News Sports Editor
This time it's more than just respect. In the past, when the Montana State University-Northern and University of Great Falls volleyball teams met on the court, it always seemed that both teams were trying to fight for the respect of the rest of the conference.
However, with both teams sitting 1-2 in the Frontier Conference standings, there is more on the line tonight at UGF's McLaughlin Center than just respect.
The Argos are the unlikely leaders of the Frontier with a perfect 4-0 record. Northern is tied for second with a 2-2 record. But as it was in the past, records mean little when these two teams meet.
"It seems like Northern and UGF have always been in the same situation in terms of trying to earn other teams' respect," said Skylights head coach Lisa Handley. "This year it's different with No.1 facing No. 2. There is also a mutual respect between the coaches and between the players."
That may be the big difference. The rivalry that developed between the two schools wasn't always the friendliest. Neither team felt like it should lose to the other. Consequently, there were hard matches, hard words and sometimes hard feelings.
That has changed since UGF coach Arunas Duda took over the program a few years back. The affable Duda has changed the whole attitude of the Argo program.
"He has such a positive, upbeat attitude," Handley said. "He really cares about those girls and they have responded. Arunas is doing a fantastic job."
Duda's work is evidenced by his team's 13-5 overall record. The Argos have been a mild surprise this season with a host of new faces that have gelled quickly to become the conference leaders. Northern got a chance to watch the new-look Argos last weekend in Lewiston, Idaho.
"They really play with a lot of intensity for the whole match," said junior middle blocker Jeanna McPherson. "They seem to all have a love for the game and enjoy playing together, which is different than last year."
Leading the way is junior outside hitter Claudia Jacobs, who ranks among the league leaders in kills, points and hitting percentage. Fellow outside hitter Brittany Prater is also having a solid season.
"I think 80 percent of their sets go their outside hitters," McPherson said. "(Jacobs) really hits the ball hard. We have to put up a big block and try to take away her sharp angle shot."
But putting up a big block might not be enough.
"They do a very good job of hitting around blocks and making good decisions," Handley said. "Our defense has to do a better job of reading where they are going to hit. That's what hurt us in our losses to Rocky and Tech."
Besides the big hitters, UGF also has a solid setter in Jen Peterson providing them very hittable balls.
"She's very smart," Handley said. "She knows how to run an offense and makes good decisions."
UGF also gets contributions from middle blockers Jodi Miller of Billings and Lesly Richter of Lewistown, along with outside hitter Jennifer Wright and libero Kari Schiller of Great Falls.
Even with all of the Argos' talent and recent success, they are far from invincible.
"You get beat by teams, but I don't think you can get beat by one or two players," McPherson said. "I think we're very comparable to them in terms of talent and things we do on the floor."
Handley hopes the play of McPherson and fellow middles Tera O'Haire and Ashley Roth will be a difference.
"I think we can exploit their middles some," Handley said. "But we have to have a good serve-receive to run that quick offense."
The Skylights have also worked on some communication issues that have hampered as of late. Yet, much of what Northern needs to change and improve isn't on the court, but in the players' heads.
They have sometimes been their own worst opponent in matches with bad habits such as playing to their opponents' level, allowing teams back into games and matches and making mental mistakes at crucial moments in the match.
"Sometimes we're other team's best players," McPherson said. "We just haven't quite developed that killer instinct yet. We let teams back into matches. We get comfortable playing right with teams, instead of putting them away."
Handley has tried everything short of animal sacrifice and team hypnotism to change that attitude. It's a process that she is trying to be patient with.
"I really think the girls put too much pressure on themselves," she said. "There were a lot of expectations for this team this season and I think it has affected us. It seems like the bigger the match, the worse we've played. But we're the underdog in this match and we have nothing to lose. I'm hoping we come out relaxed."