There is no doubt that the Montana State University-Northern volleyball program is having one of the best seasons in the school’s recent history.
And senior outside hitter Hillary Isleifson is undoubtedly one of the key reasons for the program’s success thus far.
But it turns out, Isleifson needed the Skylights just as bad as the Skylights needed her.
Isleifson is a 6-0 hitter originally from Carlyle, Saskatchewan, and she thrives off of competition, and is used to success.
As a junior in high school, she and the rest of her team from Gordon F. Kells high school in Carlyle won a silver medal (took second place overall). And as a senior, playing for Weyburn Comprehensive High School, Isleifson earned a championship, in Canada’s version of a state tournament. After high school, Isleifson moved on to the NCAA Division II ranks, where she was named the 2009-2010 female student-athlete of the year at Oklahoma Panhandle State. She has played for the Skylights the last two years, and has yet to slow down, earning First-Team All Conference honors last season, and being named a 2012 team captain this season, as well as All-Conference yet again.
Isleifson has also helped the Skylights to a 16-14 overall record this season, as well as a 10-6 conference record, and shared spot as the No. 3 team in the Frontier Conference. Northern has beaten every team in the conference at least once this season, including nationally ranked opponents like LC State. The Skylights are playing outstanding as a team, but the play and leadership by Isleifson has not been overlooked.
“Hillary has been an important part of our team the last couple of years,” Skylights head coach Bill Huebsch said. “And our success really began to turn for the better once she transferred here. Since that time she has really blossomed into a great leader on and off the floor, and was elected a team captain this year because of that.
“We are going to hate seeing her leave when she graduates,” Huebsch added. “And she has helped resurrect this program, and helped us have the season we have had this year. This is by far the best season Northern has had in a long, long time, and that is a credit to the entire team. But Hillary helped pave the way, and showed the underclassman what it takes to be successful.”
Currently, Isleifson leads the team with kills, racking up 271 this season. She also ranks No. 12 in the conference with her hitting percentage of .200, and ranks No. 5 in the conference with kills per set with three.
But Isleifson almost walked away from the game of volleyball completely. Luckily for Northern and Skylight fans, she didn’t.
“When I was in Oklahoma,” Isleifson said. “I wasn’t really happy with the coaching, and I just wasn’t having a positive experience. But here, I love all the girls and I love that the Frontier Conference is so competitive. There is a lot of competition within in the team and against other teams, and to me, the more competition, the more fun I have playing. Leaving Oklahoma was really hard for me because I made a lot of really good friends. But I knew for my volleyball career, I couldn’t stay there anymore. But when I came here I was like, OK, I will try this, but if I don’t like it I can always go back. "But as soon as I started playing with the girls it just clicked for me that Northern was the right choice.”
In the perfect sense of the phrase “small world” Isleifson was turned onto the idea of plying at Northern by some past Skylights also from Canada.
Since transferring to Northern two years ago, it has been a perfect fit for both the Skylights and Isleifson. Isleifson was able to reclaim her love for volleyball, while also helping a program find its way back to the top of the ranks. But knowing the program couldn’t be this successful without everybody on the roster and everything they bring to the table, Isleifson likes to credit the success to being a tight knit group of friends as well.
“I don’t think I have played on a team with this much talent all at once before,” Isleifson said. “And it has been awesome being able to play with these girls. And I am not really sure what it is, I think at first, we even struggled to play together, but once we saw the possibilities of what we were capable of if we did, everybody got really excited and just went from there. I am so happy with how this season has turned out. When the new recruits came in and we saw all of the talent we had, I knew that it would be a better season than last year, but I didn’t really know we would be at this level.
“She is a competitor and she doesn’t like to lose,” Huebsch added. “And in some way she is a perfectionist, so she likes to do things the right way. I think she is also a very intelligent player who understands the game and the dedication and focus it takes to be successful. Those things combined I think have made her successful.”
With the Frontier Conference tournament going on this weekend in Butte, Isleifson’s final season isn’t over just yet. Northern has a real shot at claiming one of the top spots this season, and nothing would be a better topper than a conference title and a trip to the NAIA national tournament Sioux City, Iowa.
And knowing she and the rest of the Skylights are fully backed by the community of Havre, Isleifson wants nothing more than to add that championship to her resume.
“At my old school,” Isleifson said. “Nobody came to our games and nobody cared about the volleyball program. This is unreal to me, having all of these people at our matches, and everything they do for us. Walking down the street people tell me things like ‘good game last night,’ and that is motivation for me. I even had somebody tell me how much they enjoyed watching me play, and to me there is nothing better than that, I am doing what I love and that brings a joy to somebody else. Talking with the team, I told them that we have a legitimate shot at winning the Frontier Conference this year. This year we can take the whole thing, and to me, there would be no better feeling than having the conference championship.”