There’s no question the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team is playing with confidence right now. Just look at what Northern has done in a mere two weeks of Frontier Conference play.
The Skylights began league play with a 3-0 mark, including impressive four-set wins over league favorites Carroll and Rocky Mountain College.
Interestingly however, the Skylights started last season 3-0 in league play too, all wins coming at home. But what they, and head coach Bill Huebsch are hoping is the difference in 2012, is that Northern is a veteran team which will find ways to win on the road. That’s the plan, and it starts tonight.
MSU-N (3-0, 9-8) begins its first road trip of the conference season tonight when the Skylights take on UM-Western at 7 p.m. in Dillon. After a travel day, Northern will battle Westminster College Saturday afternoon in Salt Lake City.
“The goal this last couple of weeks has been to take care of our home court,” Northern head coach Bill Huebsch said after the Skylights throttled Dickinson State on Saturday afternoon. “We did that and we gave ourselves a pretty good start and have built some momentum now. But you want to be able to go out and win some matches on the roads. The teams that can do that are the ones who finish at or near the top of this league.”
And that’s what Northern is gunning for, and this season, the Skylights not only have the talent, but they have the experience and leadership to face the daunting challenge of winning matches on the road in perhaps the deepest league in all of the NAIA.
Northern is also on a roll as it sets out on a tough road trip for the first time in September.
The wins over Carroll, Rocky and DSU were all in impressive fashion, and junior middle hitter Abby Nicholas is coming off a Frontier Conference Player of the Week performance. Nicholas is currently second in the Frontier in both hitting percentage and total kills this season and she’s fifth in total blocks. So far, she’s racked up 180 kills on the season, 52 blocks and is hitting an outstanding .298.
But the Skylights are getting great play from all over the court. Setter Joni Nagy leads the Frontier with 27 aces this season, as serving has been a strong suit for Northern so far. She also is ninth in the conference in hitting percentage and fourth with 371 assists. Despite missing two weeks of the season with injury, Hillary Isleifson is playing at a high level, as she is one of three Skylights over the century mark in kills. She’s totaled 108 bombs, while Kelsey Williams is having a huge all-around season. She’s fifth in the league in kills with 148, and she’s 13th with 144 digs. Junior libero Holly Cartwright is third in the Frontier with 227 digs.
So there’s no doubt the Skylights are playing well right now, but they have yet to be tested by Frontier teams on the road.
And that exam begins with tonight’s match at Western, a team Northern hasn’t lost to in three seasons. The Bulldogs (0-3, 5-8) are improved this year under second-year head coach Lisa Griffiths, but they’ve stumbled to an 0-3 start in league play.
Still, with Brea Mitchell (OH) and Branson Bailey (MH) providing a strong 1-2 punch for a combined 236 kills on the season, as well as a strong setter in Paige Latimer, the Bulldogs won’t be an easy out tonight, or any night for that matter.
And neither will Saturday’s opponent — the Westminster Griffins.
The Skylights have come oh so close to knocking off Westminster in Salt Lake the past two seasons, and a win there would be a huge step in the right direction. But, as Northern found out last year in a tough five-set loss, it’s easier said than done.
And the Griffins (2-1, 9-5) will be tough to beat on their home floor on Saturday. They have one of the league’s very best setters in Emily Atkinson, and 5-10 outside hitter Ashley Marchant tough to stop once she gets going. Marchant has 155 kills this season, while Stephanie Jones-Morin clogs up the middle very well. Westminster is also a good serving team, so Saturday’s match will truly be a test of which team has the better serve-receive game and which one can stay in system more often.
But game plan’s aside, Northern just wants to get the job done on the road, however it happens.
“We have a lot of confidence and we’ve built up some good momentum,” Huebsch said. “Hopefully that will carry over to these next two matches on the road. Western won’t be easy, and we know how tough it is to go down and win at Westminster. But we feel good about how we’re playing right now, and if we can continue to play well, I feel good about our chances this weekend.”
Tonight’s match with Western starts at 7 p.m. in Dillon. Saturday’s match between the Skylights and Griffins begins at 2 p.m. in Salt Lake City. The Skylights return home to face Montana Tech on Sept. 27 and Lewis-Clark State on Sept. 28.