The Montana State University-Northern volleyball team is off to a 3-0 start in Frontier Conference play. And the Skylights have held serve at home.
Now, Northern (3-0, 13-4) will go out on the road for perhaps its biggest, and certainly its longest road test of the season. Tonight, the Skylights are in Salt Lake City to take on struggling Westminster College. Northern wraps up the long trip on Saturday afternoon with a match at defending Frontier champion Lewis-Clark State.
“This is a great opportunity for us,” Northern head coach Bill Huebsch said. “To go out and be able to win matches on the road would really be a big step for us as far as our body of work goes at the end of the season.”
Tonight’s match at Westminster will be a big one for the Skylights. The Griffins are 2-2 in league play and 5-7 overall. But they have struggled at times this season, with their only wins coming against last-place UM-Western and Montana Tech. Westminster also has a different roster than the one that swept the Skylights a year ago.
And of course, Northern is a much different team too. In the Skylights’ 3-0 start to conference play, they have used their size and athleticism at the net. Hillary Isleifson has been big in hitting and blocking, and played a major role in last week’s dramatic win over UGF, coming up with 21 assists. Victoria Polo and Sierra Diehl have also been dominant in the middle. Polo is averaging two solo blocks per match, while Kelsey Williams is having a strong all-around start to the season. Senior Paige Richardson has also hit for a high percentage during the Skylights’ current win streak
The Skylights have been sharp defensively as well, and that will play a key role in how they do this weekend. Sophomore libero Holly Cartwright has been the catalyst on a good Northern defense, but Nahe Keanaaina and Lynnsie Togiai have also played very well in the back row.
“I think defensively, we have to be good every week,” Huebsch said. “And we played really good defense against UGF. We always want to make sure we go out and win the battle of serve and serve-receive.”
Northern’s defense will need to be good this week, as both the Griffins and Warriors have weapons.
Tonight’s match against Westminster will feature senior outside hitters Becky Burke and Jenna Harp as dangerous opponents. Westminster also has a strong middle in 6-0 Stephanie Jones-Morin.
On Saturday, LC State will welcome in Northern, and while the Warriors (3-1, 8-3) aren’t quite off to the start they were looking for, they are still nationally-ranked, they are still the defending Frontier champions, and a Northern team has never won in Lewiston.
LC State has solid hitters in Kelli Ticker and Lauryn Herrick, while middle blocker Nicole Graybeal is a 6-2 force in the middle and has been for three years now. However, the one thing different about this LC State team, the Warriors are young. Graybeal is a senior, as are Ticker and Herrick, but the rest of the Warriors’ roster is made up of many freshmen and sophomores, including most of the back row. LC State also rotates three setters usually.
Still, the Warriors are talented, and are virtually unstoppable at home, so that makes the end of Northern’s road trip a tall order.
But the Skylights are fighting to stay in first place in the Frontier Conference standings, and the current Northern team is much different than the one that made this trip a year ago.
“We’re playing well,” Huebsch said. “I think we’ve built a lot of confidence and momentum with this win over UGF and have the start we’ve had at home. We know this trip will be tough. We know that Westminster and LC State are two good teams and LC State is always just a very fundamentally sound and talented team. So this trip will be a huge challenge.
“But we want to carry on this momentum we’ve built,” he added. “We want to use it and see if we can go out and win on the road.”
Tonight’s match against Westminster will begin at 7 p.m. in Salt Lake City. The Skylights and LC State will tip at 2 p.m. Saturday in Lewiston, Idaho. Both matches can be streamed live on the Internet.
Frontier Conference Standings
MSU-Northern 3-0 13-4
Great Falls 2-1 17-2
Rocky Mountain 2-1 13-3
Lewis-Clark 3-1 8-3
Carroll College 2-1 9-4
Westminster 2-2 5-7
Montana Tech 0-4 7-9
UM-Western 0-4 5-10