Havre Daily News sports editor
After seven seasons and back-to-back third-place finishes in the Frontier Conference , Montana State University-Northern head volleyball coach Lisa Handley is stepping down from the Skylights' program.
Handley announced her resignation Wednesday afternoon. She said she will stay on at MSU-N through spring practice and will stay in touch with potential recruits until a new head coach is named. Thus far, Handley has signed two junior college transfers from Canada to play for the Skylights next fall.
As for her decision to leave at a time when MSU-N volleyball seems to be on the rise in the always-difficult Frontier Conference, Handley said she felt that the current state of the program allowed her the ability to walk away and devote more time to her family in good conscience.
Handley and her husband Chris intend to move back to her home of McIntosh, Minnesota at the end of the 2006 school year. Handley's son Tyler has already moved to Minnesota to attend high school for the remainder of the year, while her daughter Erica will remain here until the family moves in June.
“It's time for me to take care of my family,” Handley said. “There were a number of things that lead to this decision but the No. 1 thing right now is my family. I want to be able to devote more time to them.
“When I told the team they were certainly disappointed,” she added. “But I just felt like the timing for me couldn't be better. Dave Gantt is an excellent athletic director and he is a volleyball guy. He has great connections and I feel confident that he will bring in a great coach to take this program to the next level which was my goal all along. For that reason I feel very good about the timing of this decision.”
And over the last two seasons, Handley definitely had MSU-N pointed in the right direction. The Skylights finished third in the conference tournament in 2004, and despite an up-and-down regular season in 2005, the Skylights (7-7, 15-13) caught fire in the conference tournament in Butte, defeating archrival The University of Great Falls in five games to finish third. The Skylights has lost both regular season matches to UGF in five games and the win propelled them to their highest regional ranking in 12 years. They finished the 2005 campaign ranked seventh and just missed out on qualifying for the NAIA national tournament.
“Where we finished this season and the fact that Dave Gantt is here to take care of the program makes me feel good about the fact that this is the right time for me to do this,” Handley said. “When we came here Northern had finished dead last the previous year. I think we have gradually built the program up which was our goal. It has taken some time but I feel like things are in really good shape here right now.”
Northern lost four seniors from the 2005 team including all-conference players Jordan Fox and Jasmine Mitchell. But the Skylights return a wealth of talent for next season including former Havre High standout Jeanna McPherson as well as Tera O'Haire and Hope Wirll.
In her tenure at MSU-N, Handley had the Skylights regionally ranked twice, and she coached 13 all-conference players as well as three all-region players. Handley's teams also excelled in the classroom. She coached 42 academic all-conference players and nine Academic All-Americans. Her 2004-05 team received the AVCA National Academic Team award, with an overall GPA of 3.52.
“My time here has been great,” Handley said. “I have made a lot of friends and the community has been wonderful to me and family and they have supported our program tremendously.
“MSU-Northern gave me a great opportunity and for that I will always be grateful,” she added. “My heart will always be with this team and I will forever be a Skylight.”
As for Handley's replacement, Gantt said that the search will begin as soon as possible.
“If I could I would have started looking yesterday,” Gantt said. “But we have steps we have to take through the institution and as soon as those are in place I will immediately go out and begin the recruiting process to identify candidates for the position.
“As an athletic director, I certainly try to give every sport its due,” he added. “But I definitely feel like my experience in the volleyball world will aid in finding the right person for the job because I feel like I know everybody in it.”
Gantt also acknowledged that while his competitive volleyball fires still burn, he won't consider taking over the program himself.
“I have already been asked that question and right now I can say the answer is definitely no,” Gantt said. “It would be a huge challenge to try to be both the AD and the head coach of a sport, and maybe if all our programs were where we wanted them to be, then it might be possible. But we're not there.
“Lisa has done a nice job here,” he said. “Her continuity over the years has been something this program hasn't experienced before.”