By Ryan Divish
There are an assortment of ways to motivate athletes. Montana State University-Northern volleyball coach Lisa Handley had tried just about everything this season. But this past weekend, she found the best way to motivate her team: bribery.
It definitely worked. Northern played its best volleyball since early in the the season, defeating Westminster College on Friday in a five-game marathon and pulling off a scintillating upset of conference leader UM-Western on Saturday night.
Because of her new motivational strategy, Handley was forced to moonwalk across the MSU-gymnasium floor after the Westminster match. As for the exciting win on Saturday, Handley will have to dye her hair to whatever color the team chooses.
Both are small prices to pay considering her team's desperate need for a victory.
"Whatever works for them," Handley said. "The team I saw this weekend, I hadn't seen since we played in Dickinson."
That preseason tournament in Dickinson was almost two months ago. Since then the Skylights have struggled with consistency and confidence. After losing to the University of Great Falls on Oct. 23, Northern officially hit rock bottom. It was the Skylights' seventh consecutive loss and Handley had seen enough.
She gave her players five days off from practice to re-evaluate their situations and reassess what volleyball meant to them.
It obviously meant something.
Northern played with a swagger in Friday night's match against Westminster. It was evident from the first game. The Skylights started off slowly, but rallied from a five-point deficit to tie the game at 24. A couple of Northern mistakes and a pair of timely kills gave Westminster a 29-25 lead. Faced with game point, Northern didn't back down. Kills from Tanja Bruski and Jasmine Mitchell and a Tamecia Watkins ace brought Northern within one at 29-28. However, Watkins' next serve was into the net to give Westminster a game one victory.
Watkins would have her revenge. Her serving was pivotal in game two. With Northern trailing 27-21, Watkins served eight consecutive points including three aces to put the Skylights ahead 29-27. Westminster rallied to tie it at 29, but a hitting error and Watkins' one-armed dig over the net gave Northern a 31-29 win.
After falling behind the first two games, the Skylights dominated game three winning 30-17 never trailing once. Northern made it look easy. But game four was anything but. The Skylights trailed for most of the game and could never overcome, losing 30-25.
It set up a deciding fifth game. Handley and her team were confident, having had been successful previously in game fives. But Northern didn't start out that way. The Skylights found themselves trailing 10-5, but they showed some resiliency. Northern went on a 9-2 run highlighted by solid serving from Sarah Bruce, who served five consecutive points including an ace. With the score 14-12, Watkins found herself serving for the game again. This time she got the serve over and punctuated the victory with a backrow kill.
"I was just trying to get it over," Watkins said. "I was so mad the first time. All I kept thinking was get it over the net.' We wanted this one bad. Everybody was ready to win."
Perhaps no one more than Handley, who has seen the potential of this team firsthand.
"We showed some determination, especially when we were down 10-5 in the fifth game," Handley said. "Even when we were down, it just felt like we were never going to lose."
Northern dominated the net with 20 assisted blocks and five solo blocks. Bruce had 4 while Bruski added four.
"They really decided to own the net," Handley said. "We told them, Even if you can't block it, at least get a piece of it.'"
Watkins led a balanced Northern attack with 14 kills. Bruce and Bruski added 12 kills each and Jasmine Mitchell chipped in with 11.
"Our whole team played great," Bruski said. "Everyone contributed."
It would take that type of effort on Saturday night to knock off UM-Western. The Bulldogs were planted firmly atop the Frontier Conference with a 10-1 league record.
But if Northern was intimidated by playing the conference leader, it certainly didn't show.
The Skylights jumped out, winning the first two games 30-25 and 30-23. Northern played with intensity and purpose.
"I think they thought they would come in here and walk all over us," Bruce said.
But that was far from the case. Northern served aggressively, picking up nine aces, and scrapped on every ball. Western was clearly flustered.
"We decided to attack Western's best player, Katie Stokes," Handley said. "She's their best passer and in the past we served away from her. This time we went right at her."
Western didn't get to the top of the conference on sheer luck. The Bulldogs came out for game three swinging.
Northern took the initial punches and stayed in the game. However, Stokes, Kasey Smith and Katherine Sunwall scored Western's final 12 points to take game three, 30-24.
Game four opened much the way game three ended. Smith's and Stokes' hitting, coupled with some timely Northern mistakes, gave Western a 10-6 lead.
"We looked a little confused and flustered," Handley said, "not like a team that had won the first two games."
But Northern calmed down and fought back to tie the game at 14. A pair of aces from Bruce gave Northern some cushion and the players slowly added to it. The Skylights got to match point on a Bruce kill and the junior from Columbus ended the match with a tough kill.
"It felt so good," Bruce said of the final shot. "We wanted this win so bad. We knew that we could play this way all along. We finally just put it all together."
For the match Northern put up a stellar 16 aces and committed only four errors on its serve-receive.
"We served extremely well," Handley said. "Our serve-receive was the difference. I've always said that if we can pass well, we can do well."
Bruski led Northern with 14 kills while Watkins added 11 kills and six aces. Bruce finished with six kills and a match-high 18 digs. Hannah Nutting dished 41 assists and had four aces.
Handley credited the win on Friday night for her team's play on Saturday.
"The win Friday was huge," Handley said. "It was a must-win in terms of confidence and it showed against Western."
Handley hopes that her team can build on these wins with the Frontier Conference tournament looming a few weeks away.
"We should be more confident," Handley said. "We have the knowledge that we can not only compete, but win."
Northern will travel to Carroll College on Friday and Rocky Mountain College on Saturday.