The last three weeks have been rocky for the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team. Now, the Skylights are hoping there’s no place like home one more time.
Northern, which has lost four of its last five matches, will end its home schedule with two Frontier matches, starting tonight against the UM-Western Bulldogs at 7. The Skylights also host Westminster College for Senior Day Saturday at 2 p.m.
And it’s a big weekend for MSU-N (7-5, 13-13), which is 5-1 on its home floor this season. The Skylights are looking to finish strong and go into the Frontier tournament playing at a high level. But they’re also looking to rebound from last Saturday’s devastating loss at Carroll, a loss in which Northern was ahead, then allowed the Saints to storm back.
This weekend’s matches are also big because despite only winning once since beating Lewis-Clark State back on Sept. 27, the Skylights are still very much in the thick of the Frontier standings. MSU-N is tied with Great Falls for third, and is only one game behind Carroll and two behind first-place LC State.
“We talked on Monday about the disappointment we felt at Carroll,” MSU-N head coach Bill Huebsch said. “That was a tough loss, but we talked about the fact we can’t dwell on it. Hopefully, we use it as motivation for this weekend. We also talked about finishing strong, about having an opportunity this weekend to start playing at a very high level again. This team has already accomplished a lot of firsts this season, but we need to understand we’re not done, we have more memories to make. But in order to do that, we have to start playing more consistently, like we were earlier in the season.”
Consistency is something that has come and gone in the last three weeks for MSU-N, whether it be match-to-match, or at times, set-to-set. And with two upstart teams coming in this weekend, Huebsch said his team needs to find that consistency for good.
“In both matches, we just have to be a little bit better in all phases,” Huebsch said.
“We’re not playing poorly, but we need to remember to finish every set, to play hard every ball, and not let up. I think we need to block and serve better. When we were winning earlier, we did both of those things very well and that’s kind of gone away a little lately. When we do those things, it gives us a chance to defend in the back row and to get more quality swings. So again, it’s just being more consistent in all phases.”
One Skylight who’s been pretty consistent all season is Abby Nicholas. The junior middle is third in the Frontier in kills with 295 and fourth in blocks with 88. Alongside Nicholas, Hillary Isleifson is eighth in kills with 233, while Kelsey Williams is 11th in kills with 228 and second in aces with 29, to go along with 248 digs. Holly Cartwright anchors the back row with 425 digs, which is third in the conference.
But it will take a consistent, and total team effort to be successful, starting tonight against the Bulldogs (5-7, 10-14). The Skylights beat Western in five sets back on Sept. 20 in Dillon, but the Bulldogs stormed back from a 2-0 deficit to nearly upset MSU-N. And Western is perhaps the most improved team in the Frontier, even though the Dawgs’ are young. Sophomore outside hitters Bailey Brunson (5-8) and Breanne Kelly (5-9) have 221 and 89 kills, respectively, sophomore middle blocker Charelle Minor leads the team in blocks, and sophomore setter Paige Lattimer is third in the Frontier with 793 assists.
“We need to expect Western to come in here and play very well,” Huebsch said. “Because they have been playing well. They are playing with confidence, they are playing with momentum right now and they are very much-improved.
“They are sometimes unorthodox in what they do, but at other times they come out and really attack you,” he continued. “So you have to be patient and be on your toes against them. They are well coached and we fully expect them to come in here ready to go.”
The Westminster Griffins (6-5, 13-9) will also come to Havre ready to go on Saturday. And if Northern beats Western tonight, Saturday’s showdown could have huge seeding implications for the upcoming conference tournament.
Saturday’s match will also be an emotional one as the Skylights honor their three seniors, Isleifson, Victoria Polo and Karyssa Bowron (see related story) before the match. And it will also be emotional because the Skylights are trying to beat a team that’s had MSU-N’s number as of late, in what will be the final match in Havre this season.
“We didn’t play poorly down there,” Huebsch said, referring to MSU-N’s three-set loss at Westminster last month. “Again, it’s about consistency. We had chances to beat them in every set and we didn’t finish, and we’ve done too much of that lately. Against Westminster, we just have to do the things we do well, worry about what we can control, and we have to execute the way we’re capable of. At this point in the season, execution and being consistent is what it’s all about.”
Westminster has some weapons though, so being consistent will be big for Northern. Ashley Marchant, a 5-10 outside hitter, has 243 kills and is second in the Frontier in hitting percentage. Middle blockers Steph Jones-Morin (6-0) and Kate Vance (5-11) have combined for 103 blocks this season, while Emily Atkinson is an outstanding setter, who is second in the league with 820 assists.
Northern isn’t just hoping to execute, the Skylights are hoping to also put the finishing touches on what has been a brilliant season at the Armory. MSU-N has just one loss at home and the Skylights have a chance to use that home-court advantage to try and ensure a top seed at the Frontier tourney.
“It’s a big weekend for us,” Huebsch said. “We have a chance to stay in contention for a top seed at the tournament or even better. We have a chance to really build some momentum, and we have the chance to play in front of our great home crowds two more times. Hopefully, we take advantage of those opportunities. Hopefully, we go out and play to our potential.”
Tonight’s match between the Skylights and UM-Western will begin at 7 at the Armory Gymnasium. Northern will honor its Adopt-A-Skylight parents before the match. Saturday’s Senior Day match between the Skylights and Westminster is set for 2 p.m. The Skylights finish the regular season next weekend at Rocky and Dickinson State.