What a weekend the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team just had. The Skylights finished their home schedule with straight set wins over UM-Western and Westminster College.
And not only did MSU-N demolish two good teams at the Armory Gymnasium, they showed they are ready to be a force in the upcoming postseason tournament. But before they can do that, MSU-N (9-5, 15-13) will have to close out the regular season with two difficult road matches.
Tonight, Northern is in Billings to take on Rocky Mountain College (6-8, 11-17), then the Skylights close out the season with a visit to Dickinson State (0-12, 2-18), Saturday afternoon in Dickinson, N.D.
Northern is streaking, having won three of its last four matches, and the Skylights are getting good play from all over the floor. Haley Russell had a big weekend against the Bulldogs and Griffins, totaling four blocks in the two wins. Victoria Polo is also playing at a high level. In her last four matches, she’s averaged seven kills and two blocks, while Joni Nagy is hurting opposing teams with her passing and her dangerous and powerful jump serve. Nagy has nine 10 aces in her last three matches.
Northern’s attackers are also on fire right now. Abby Nicholas is third in the Frontier in kills (310), fourth in blocks (93) and fourth in overall hitting percentage. Hillary Isleifson is seventh in the conference with 255 kills, while Kelsey Williams in ninth with 247. Defensively, Holly Cartwright is third in the conference with 453 digs, while Nicholas, Williams and Isleifson are also playing well when in the back row.
But while the Skylights seem to be playing well in all phases of the game, tonight’s match in Billings will be a true test. Rocky got off to a rough start this season, having lost five senior starters from last year’s national tournament team. Included in that start was a four-set loss to MSU-N back on Sept. 14 in Havre. But the Battlin’ Bears have been playing much better the second half of the season and they will certainly be hungry for a win against Northern tonight.
“Rocky has improved a lot from when we saw them last,” MSU-N head coach Bill Huebsch said after Saturday’s win against Westminster. “They will be ready for us and we know that.”
The Bears an excellent middle blocker in 6-3 sophomore Anna DeWald 245 kills and 115 blocks this season. Alongside DeWald is 6-1 middle Esther Timofeyev, who has 111 blocks this season, and together they form a formidable front. RMC is also solid in the back row with libero Jamie Elenbaas, who is right behind Cartwright with 429 digs on the season.
And Rocky isn’t just big up front, the Bears also stand in the way of Northern’s chances of grabbing at least the No. 2 seed in next week’s conference tournament. The Skylights come into tonight’s match tied with Carroll College and UGF for second in the Frontier standings, and a win over Rocky would put them in position to finish second or at worst third.
But MSU-N would, and will have to also take care of business on Saturday at DSU. The Skylights swept the Blue Hawks back in September, and DSU has yet to win a match in their first season in the Frontier. But make no mistake, DSU has competed with every team in the league this season, and Huebsch knows the Blue Hawks won’t be a pushover in the regular season finale.
“They (Blue Hawks) are the type of team no one really wants to play right now,” Huebsch said. “They’ve played well at times against everybody in our league. They have good players, and they could be a very dangerous team this time of year.”
The Skylights are also a dangerous team right now, and two wins on the road this weekend would be the icing on the cake in what has been a remarkable regular season. And Huebsch is hoping his team goes out and builds off last weekend’s emotional wins by carrying that fine play into two opposing environments.
“It’s really great to see us playing so well at the end of the season,” Huebsch said. “That’s what you want, what you strive for is to be playing your best volleyball at this time of the year. Hopefully, we’ve built some really good momentum and that will carry over to these last two matches. We have an opportunity to really put ourselves in a good position going into the tournament, and hopefully we can go on the road and seize that opportunity.”
Tonight’s match between the Skylights and Rocky will start at 7 at the Fortin Center in Billings. Northern’s match at Dickinson State Saturday will begin at 4 p.m. Both matches can be viewed on the internet by going to www.msun/edu/athletics.