By Ryan Divish
It's a pretty simple scenario for the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team win and keep playing, or lose and start thinking about next year.
The sixth-seeded Skylights will face third-seeded Rocky Mountain College tonight in Butte in the first round of the Frontier Conference volleyball tournament with their season on the line.
It will be the fourth meeting of the season between the two schools, with Rocky winning all three previous matches.
However, each of those matches was very close, with two going to a deciding fifth game. The matchup was a budding rivalry at the beginning of the season and with each match the rivalry grows.
"It's fun to have that competitive atmosphere with Rocky," said head coach Lisa Handley. "The girls certainly aren't intimidated by Rocky. They make us play harder."
Handley's players aren't nervous about the tournament. Rather they are anxious to get out there and play.
"We aren't going all the way down there to lose," said senior Tamecia Watkins. "We know we can beat them. It's just a matter of everyone playing well at the same time, instead of just one or two."
Watkins couldn't be more correct. In all three matches, Watkins and junior Tanja Bruski had solid matches. But for the Skylights to be successful, they need more than Watkins and Bruski to play well.
"When everyone is on, we're incredible," Bruski said. "We can pretty much beat anyone."
Indeed, the Skylights are as talented as any team in the Frontier. But as Bruski admitted it's a matter of which Skylight team will show up. Will it be the aggressive, hard serving, big hitting Skylights that knocked off UM-Western two weeks ago, or the passive, quiet, back-off Skylights that lost seven matches in a row including a loss to last place Great Falls.
"That's what teams around the conference say about us," Bruski said. "They always want to know which team will show up. Sometimes we don't know."
It has been frustrating at times for Handley, but signs in practice this week point toward the aggressive Skylights taking the floor in Butte.
"The girls are excited," Handley said. "I expect them to step up. They've been looking forward to the tournament so they could prove some people wrong about them."
Regardless of which Skylight team shows up, Rocky certainly won't look past them, especially after last season. A year ago, the situation was exactly the same with Northern the sixth seed and Rocky the third, and the Skylights upset the Bears in three straight games.
"It was amazing. Rocky didn't really even warm-up, they were looking past us.
Said Handley: "Last year nobody expected us to beat Rocky. I know they didn't. I'm sure (head coach) Wade (Wells) won't let them look past us this season."
Rocky certainly couldn't make the mistake two years in a row, could they?
"Nobody can overlook us," Watkins said. "The Western game proved that. They don't what to expect from us."
But what do the Skylights expect from Rocky and more importantly themselves?
According to Handley, Rocky is perhaps the most athletic team in the conference. They are led by senior middle hitter Libby Torma, who is possibly one of the best all-around players in the conference.
"We had MVP voting this week," Handley said."And I know Libby Torma will get her fair share of votes."
Besides Torma, Katy Furlong and Tiffani Bauer are solid hitters while defensive specialist Kelsey Williams is one of the Frontier's best.
Northern will counter with the hitting of Watkins, Bruski, Sarah Bruce and Jasmine Mitchell. Hannah Nutting has been solid at setter while Brandi Pushka and Emmy Olson have been solid all-around players.
The key for Northern will be its serve-receive game. It predicates everything the Skylights do and weighs heavily on their confidence.
"Serve-receive, that's all we need to worry about," Watkins said. "We have to pass the ball, we can't be afraid. When the pass is there, the set is there and the kill is there."
Northern and Rocky will square off tonight at 6 p.m. at the HYPER on the Montana Tech campus.