The Montana State University-Northern volleyball revenge tour is up and running this early Frontier Conference season.
Last weekend, the Skylights opened league play with their first win over Carroll College in nearly a decade, and on Friday night, at a loud and rowdy Armory Gymnasium, the Skylights took down another nemesis. Northern beat Rocky Mountain College in four thrilling sets Friday night, which ultimately led to a home sweep, as the Skylights easily took care of new Frontier member Dickinson State University on Saturday afternoon.
MSU-N had built up some good momentum with last week’s win over Carroll, and over the course of Friday and Saturday, the Skylights kept it going, and that’s all head coach Bill Huebsch wanted.
“Two wins at home, and we played at a pretty high level against a two quality opponents,” Huebsch said. “That’s really all you can ask for. I’m pretty proud of this team and how they played the last two matches.”
Huebsch was especially proud of Friday night’s win over the Battlin’ Bears, a national tournament team from a year ago.
Northern took the first set from Rocky 34-32, in what was a wild affair in which both teams had ample opportunities to put the other away. Then, as Huebsch expected they would, the Bears rebounded and tied the match at 1-1 with a 25-21 second-set win. What happened after that showed just how tough the Skylights have become, especially mentally. In two more grueling sets against a tall and talented Bears’ squad, the Skylights found a way to win, 25-22 and 25-23, respectively.
“That first set, we had some chances to end it before it ever got into the 30’s,” Huebsch said. “Luckily though, we found a way to finish it. I think, in the second set, we didn’t play as well as we wanted defensively with our blocking, and Rocky is talented and very well coached and they took advantage of that.
“I think what happened over the next two sets was, we got back to being very aggressive and really put our minds to controlling the tempo,” he added. I think we were better with our blocking, we served very tough and we just kept executing. And while we couldn’t really go on any major runs , we didn’t allow them (Bears) to either. We really just kept grinding and staying patient and I’m proud of the girls for that. That’s really what turned out to be the difference in what I thought was a really well-played match by both teams.”
Indeed. The Skylights and Bears combined to fill up the stat sheet in a match which neither team could gain any big leads.
Northern totaled 62 kills to the Bears’ 55, while the taller Bears out-blocked the Skylights 15-8. MSU-N was tough in the serve and serve-receive game, as the Skylights pounded out 10 aces, and both teams executed their attacks and serving at a pretty clean clip.
The middle also turned out to be a big advantage for the Skylights as Abby Nicholas, who had a monster weekend overall, really controlled things up front. She had 18 kills and one block from the middle on a night when the Skylights needed to be forceful at the net.
“That’s a big win for us,” the 6-0 junior from Sandy, Utah said. “We knew coming in Rocky was a big team and they had a pretty big size advantage over us. So we really focused on playing with a lot of intensity. We made sure we took a lot of swings and weren’t phased by their size. It was a tough match and a really good win for us.
“We brought Abby here to play on the right side,” Huebsch added. “But out of necessity, we moved her to the middle and she has really excelled there. She’s just been really consistent for us from day one and she had a great weekend.”
The Skylights were very balanced in their win over the Bears as well. Four players reached double digits in kills. Hillary Isleifson racked up 14 kills to go along with 12 digs, while Joni Nagy added 10 kills, 23 assists and two solo blocks, and Kelsey Williams had 10 kills 21 digs and a match-high five aces. Shayla Bly led the Skylights in their 6-2 set with 29 assists to go along with three aces and Holly Cartwright had a team-high 28 digs.
“The thing that really stands out the most to me about this win,” Huebsch added. “Is that we never panicked. We stayed poised throughout the match, no matter the score or what was happening to us. I think in past years, we may not of even hung on to win that first set, because of youth and inexperience. But this team is very poised, very composed and they really played like a veteran group against a very talented and well-coached Rocky team. So I’m very proud of these girls for that.”
And with a short turnaround and coming off an emotional Friday night win over the Bears, it would have been easy for the Skylights to regress, at least a little on Saturday afternoon against Dickinson State.
Instead, a fierce start led to a great Festival Days weekend for the Skylights as they easily swept the Blue Hawks by scores of 25-14, 25-14 and 25-18.
“There really wasn’t a let down at all,” Huebsch said. “You worry with such a short turnaround, about fatigue and things like that, but I thought the girls came out aggressive and ready to play. The intensity was there right away and that was nice to see. Even when we fell behind early in the third set, we picked it right back and took control again.”
Control was something the Skylights had against the Blue Hawks right from the onset.
Northern broke a 5-5 tie in the first set with a 5-0 run, with Nicholas contributing a block and one of her six aces on the day. MSU-N later ripped off a 9-1 run in the set and ended the dismantling of the Blue Hawks with another ace from Nicholas.
The second set was won in even more dominant fashion.
When Northern went up 8-7 on back-to-back aces by Nicholas, the Skylights were never threatened again in the set. Nagy and Williams were stellar at the net in the second set for the Skylights, both recording stretches of back-to-back kills, while MSU-N really took control with its blocking too, as Nicholas, Victoria Polo and Haley Russell all got into the act at the net.
And even when DSU seemed to gain some life to start the third, as the Blue Hawks went up 7-3, the Skylights never wavered. They took the lead for good at 15-14, then went on an 12-3 run later to put the match away, with the final kill coming cross court from Isleifson.
“I was happy with the way we played today for the most part,” Huebsch said. “I thought we served tough yet again, and our blocking was good. We controlled the tempo of the match most of the way and you need to do that against a scrappy defensive team like Dickinson. So I was proud of the way the girls executed today.”
Nicholas again led the way with 10 kills, two of Northern’s 12 blocks, and her timely aces. Isleifson added six kills and two blocks, Bly had 13 assists and Williams totaled a team-high 15 digs.
And with the weekend sweep, the Skylights are now off to a fast-paced 3-0 start in league play. And it’s important that they held serve at home over the last two weeks, as they now face a tough road trip, Thursday at UM-Western and Saturday at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.
“It’s super important to win these home matches,” Nicholas said. “You can’t drop games to these teams at home and then have to go play them at their house later in the year when they have probably improved. It’s great to play at home, our crowd was great this weekend, and these wins were really big for us.
“We accomplished what we set out to do this weekend,” Huebsch said. “And not only did we win both matches, I think we played well. And it gives us a little more momentum and some confidence to go play on the road next week. It was a really good weekend for our program.”
Shining at Home
MSU-Northern def. Rocky Mountain
34-32, 21-25, 25-22, 25-23
RMC – Kills 55 (Anna DeWald 15), Assists 52 (Tori Bertsdch 20), Aces 5 (Five with one each), Digs 95 (Jenni Donaldson 30), Blocks 15 (Mariah Stiffarm 7).
MSU-N – Kills 62 (Abby Nicholas 18, Hillary Isleifson 14), Assists 55 (Shayla Bly 29, Joni Nagy 23), Aces 10 (Kelsey Williams 5, Bly 3), Digs 82 (Holly Cartwright 28, Williams 25), Blocks 8 (Nagy 2).
MSU-Northern def. Dickinson State
25-14, 25-14, 25-18
DSU – Kills 21 (Melissa Avila 9), Assists 20 (Kelly O’Connor 9), Aces 2 (one each), Digs 59 (O’Connor 18), Blocks 3 (Avila 1, Shaundra Dvorak 1).
MSU-N – Kills 32 (Abby Nicholas 10, Hillary Isleifson 6), Assists 29 (Shayla Bly 13), Aces 11 (Nicholas 6), Digs 52 (Kelsey Williams 15, Holly Cartwright 10), Blocks 12 (Haley Russell 2, Nicholas 2, Isleifson 2).