Three weeks might not seem like much time, but when you’re playing volleyball, traveling to places like Spokane and Las Vegas, it can seem like an eternity.
That’s the odyssey the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team has been on since opening its season three weeks ago in Great Falls.
But that’s all about to change as the Skylights finally come home.
On Saturday night, the Skylights will host Carroll College in what is not only their home opener, but the Frontier Conference opener for both teams, and the first sporting event to be played in the currently being remodeled Armory Gymnasium.
“There are a lot of things motivating us,” Fourth-year head coach Bill Huebsch said. “This is the first chance to play at home in front of our fans, it’s a conference match against a big rival, and we’re playing on our brand new floor for the first time. So all of that is really excited and our kids are really excited to play on Saturday night.”
Northern (6-8) has played a brutal nonconference schedule over a three-week stretch. And seven of the Skylights’ eight losses have come at the hands of nationally-ranked opponents. In the current NAIA Top 25, MSU-N has played No. 2 Concordia of California, No. 10 Cal-State San Marcos, No. 11 Doane College, No. 19 Eastern Oregon, No. 24 Lubbock Christian, as well as UGF and LaSierra University, who are both receiving votes. Included in that run are some great five-set matches and some very close losses, all of which Huebsch hopes will have his team battled tested, for Carroll and beyond.
“It turned out, our schedule was even more difficult than I thought,” Huebsch said. “We have played some really, really good teams and all on the road. But that’s by design. We’ve been challenged, we’ve faced adversity and we’ve really pushed ourselves to get better. We’re hoping that will really pay off now that the conference season is here. Playing so many ranked teams, and all the close matches we’ve played, including down in Las Vegas last weekend, will only be a positive for us.”
And now the Skylights come home to play yet another nationally-ranked power.
Carroll comes into Saturday night ranked No. 21 in the NAIA after going 10-4 in the preseason. Carroll graduated a ton of senior talent from last year’s team, including three-year starting setter Caitlin Tocci, but the young Saints are already playing well in 2012 and are only looking to get better.
“They (Saints) did lose four really good players last year,” Huebsch said. “But, they were a really young team around those four, so they bring back a lot of players who got a lot of experience last season.
“What really stands out to me is their length,” he continued. “They are long and tall in the front row, and they really can control the pace of the match with their blocking. So we have to counteract that by passing the ball well and taking them out of system as much as we can.”
The Saints are led by 2011 all-conference performer Elli Graff (6-0, MH). Graff is a dominant force at the net and she’ll get plenty of looks in Carroll’s 6-2 rotation. Callie Prestwood, a 6-2 sophomore has also been outstanding on the right side, while the Saints are going with two new setters in freshman Emily Burke and senior Natalie Stewart. Also seeing action for the Saints is junior Karla Hellegaard, a former Havre High standout.
“We’ve got to win the battle of serve-receive and serve,” Huebsch said. “We can’t afford to get broke down by their serve. If we do those things and we defend at the net consistently, then I think it’s going to be a good match.”
And Northern has been playing pretty consistent leading into Saturday night’s opener, which will give fans their first look at the work being done to the Armory Gymnasium. The Skylights have been getting great offensive production from Kelsey Williams and newcomer Abby Nicholas. And they got back senior Hillary Isleifson from injury after she missed the Frontier-Cascade Challenge with an injury two weeks ago. Also playing at a high level is junior setter Joni Nagy, who has been outstanding in all of Northern’s sets, while Holly Cartwright is picking up right where she left off a year ago.
“This is a big match for us,” Huebsch said. “But then again, they all are in conference play. But it’s one we’re really excited for. We’re finally at home, we get to christen our new gym and we have a chance to play a very good team in Carroll College.
“This is a match the kids have been looking very forward to and they are pumped up for,” he added. “Hopefully we come out and play really well on Saturday night.”
Saturday night’s home opener between the Skylights and Fighting Saints will get under way at 5 p.m. at the Armory Gymnasium. Because the gym is still undergoing renovations, fans are asked to bring chairs and participate in a beach party theme night.The Skylights will also be at home next weekend to host Rocky Mountain College and Dickinson State.