A split on the road in Frontier Conference volleyball is always a good thing.
And now that the Montana State University-Northern Skylights have that, they are looking to validate it on their home floor.
Tonight at 7, the Skylights begin a two-match home stand by taking on Montana Tech in a pivotal Frontier showdown. On Friday night, Northern will battle first-place Lewis-Clark State at the Armory Gymnasium.
The Skylights (4-1,10-9) return home from a split with UM-Western and Westminster College tied for second place in the Frontier Conference standings, nearing the halfway mark of the season. And Northern is hoping two more home matches will help them continue to gain some ground in the chase to the top of the Frontier.
“It’s really important to defend your home floor in this league,” Northern head coach Bill Huebsch said. “There are no easy nights in our league, especially on the road, so when you have opportunities to win at home, you need to take advantage of them.”
And the Skylights have done that so far, going a perfect 3-0 on their home floor this season. But they’ll have their hands full with the Orediggers and Warriors this weekend.
And Huebsch is hoping the same formula which has helped Northern get to second place in the Frontier, is what will work this tonight against Montana Tech.
Tech is a good team, they had a great preseason,” Huebsch said. “They are very well-coached and even though they are pretty young, they are playing very well. They are very good defensively and they spread the ball around pretty well. So once again, we’re going to have to be patient, we’re going to have to be poised. We need to terminate the ball when we get chances, but also not get frustrated when they (Diggers’) dig up some balls on us. And as always, we need to be tough with our serve and in serve-receive.”
And Tech (1-4, 11-6) will make some plays on defense, but it’s the offense of former Big Sandy standout Shersteen Cline which the Skylights need to watch out for. Cline is having an outstanding senior season. She comes to Havre with 192 kills on the season, which is third in the Frontier Conference. Sidney Norris is right behind Cline with 189 kills and Korey Krumm is ninth with 159 kills. But defense is where the Diggers’ make teams play, and freshman Alison Lunde is leading the NAIA in digs with 688 on the season. Defensive specialist Kimmy Kavran is also big in the back row, while middle blocker Mikayla Sullivan is Tech’s only player over 6-0.
“They are playing a lot of freshmen, but those kids are playing well,” Huebsch said. “So they are going to be a tough challenge for our us, especially with the way they play defense.”
But the Skylights have some advantages tonight too, and one is height. Northern has a presence at the net, with Abby Nicholas, Victoria Polo and Haley Russell all looking to control the temp with the block. MSU-N’s serve has been and should be a big weapon for the Skylights too. Joni Nagy is leading the Frontier with 29 aces this season and the Skylights lead the league as a team with 117 aces on the year.
Northern’s serve has been a weapon this season, and Huebsch is hoping it will be tonight and through the home stand.
“I think that’s been a big difference this year,” Huebsch said. “We’ve really been able to put pressure on teams with ou serve. Joni (Nagy) has an outstanding jump serve with a lot of topspin and so does Abby (Nicholas). But we also have Hillary Isleifson and Kelsey Williams, who both have really good floating jump serves and when they’re on, they can put it wherever they want. And when Shayla Bly and Holly Cartwright go back there, it’s pretty much the same too.
“We have the ability to keep sending players back there who can put a lot of pressure on our opponent with their serves,” he said. “And that’s been big for us this season.”
And it will be big on Friday night when the No. 24 Warriors (5-0, 8-5) come to Havre.
LC State has a lot of fresh faces on this year’s team, but they start the weekend undefeated in the Frontier and once again, atop the league standings. The Warriors are led by junior outside hitter Niurka Toribio (6-2), who has 54 kills, but the Warriors’ size and depth may be their biggest strength. Freshman Keisha Luebbert-Kennedy (6-3) is a force in the middle, while senior Brianne Brown and freshman Willow Markowitz (6-2) can also put the ball away on the outside. Overall, LC has eight players which stand 5-11 or taller, and the Warriors’ fast-paced offense is certainly a concern.
“They (Warriors) have a lot of new faces this year, but they are no less talented,” Huebsch said. “I think people got the idea that they struggled in the preseason, but really they were missing a couple of key players, and now their full strength and once again look like one of the team’s to beat in our league.
“They are very tall and athletic and they want to control the tempo of the match with their blocking and their presence at the net,” he added. “They are a very fast-paced teams and when they are in system, they can really get rolling on you. So not to sound like a broken record, but the key for us to break them down with our serve and our serve-receive game as much as possible. And we have to play pretty mistake-free volleyball. You can’t let them go on scoring runs, especially late in sets.”
But while the Skylights will certainly have their hands full on Friday night, the first order of business is to take care of their home floor tonight against Montana Tech. With back-to-back home matches, and then a short turnaround to play in Great Falls and Lewiston, Idaho, tonight’s match is a big one for Northern.
“A lot can happen in this league,” Huebsch said. “So we need to really come out and get off to a good st lot of confidence right now, and the most important thing is to go out and play well on Thursday night.”
Tonight’s match between MSU-N and Montana Tech will get underway at 7 at the Armory Gymnasium. Friday night’s match with Lewis-Clark State will also start at 7 p.m. Northern returns to the road for matches at UGF on Oct. 4 and at LC State on Oct. 6.