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Frontier Preview: Skylights among Frontier title contenders

 

September 12, 2013

Daniel Horton

Montana State University-Northern's Kelsey Williams, right, spikes a ball during a Frontier Conference volleyball match last October against Lewis-Clark State. The new Frontier season begins Friday night when the Skylights host Carroll College.

What a year it was in Frontier Conference volleyball back in 2012. The conference ended with Carroll College beating the Montana State University-Northern Skylights in a dramatic five-set match that went well beyond 15 points.

That was just the ending to what was one of the most competitive season’s of volleyball in the Frontier in as long as anybody can remember.

Northern was the big story as the Skylights finished as high in the standings as they have in over a decade. MSU-N then ripped through two wins in the Frontier tourney in Butte, including a dominating victory over regular season champion Lewis-Clark State in the semifinals. Northern, which just five years earlier suffered through a dreadful two-win season, then came within a point of winning a Frontier crown and advancing to the NAIA national tournament.

And as hard as it will be to top the 2012 season for pure drama, 2013 has the potential to do just that.

The non-conference schedule began back in early August, and Frontier teams have made quite a strong showing. Rocky Mountain College is currently ranked No. 25 in the country, while Northern is among the Top 30 teams in the NAIA. Carroll played a rigorous non-conference schedule, including matches against four nationally-ranked squads, while teams like Montana Tech and UM-Western appear to be on the rise.

But summer is nearly over, and now it’s time for the Frontier to start playing matches. That means rivalries will be renewed and the race to the Frontier Conference Tournament in November is officially on.

Some big-time matches to watch this season, include both meetings between Carroll and Northern, starting Friday night in Havre. Rocky’s home match with Carroll should also be a big one, as well as the six meetings overall between Northern, Rocky, Carroll and LC State.

Here’s a look at the Frontier Conference, team-by-team, in their predicted order of finish for 2013.

Carroll College Fighting Saints

2013 Record: 7-7

2012: 15-12 overall, 11-5 in the Frontier.

2nd in the Frontier; League Champion

Head coach Mo Boyle’s Saints have been a team on the rise for some time, and they finally got to the top of the mountain with their win over the Skylights in the 2012 title match. Carroll was then picked to win the Frontier in 2013, mainly on the strength of their returning front row. Senior middle hitter Elli Graff (6-0) is perhaps the top returning weapon in the Frontier, and she does so much for the Saints offensively and defensively. But she’s also surrounded by size and athleticism. Kathleen Mulligan (-2, OH), Calli Prestwood (6-2, RS) and Rebecca Sweeney (5-10, OH) all return after a productive season a year ago. Carroll also has experience in former Blue Pony Karla Hellegaard and defensive specialist Catie Hanser, but the Saints are breaking in two new setters this season, and the transition hasn’t been as smooth. Still, with all of Carroll’s talent in the front row, combined with so much veteran leadership, there’s no reason why the Saints shouldn’t be the favorite to repeat as Frontier champions this fall.

Lewis-Clark State Warriors

2013 Record: 5-8

2012: 17-10 overall, 11-4 in the Frontier

Regular Season Champions

For many years, LC State reigned supreme in the Frontier, and there was little anybody could do to stop the Warriors. Prior to the 2012 season, LC State had appeared in 17 straight NAIA national tournaments. And though the Warriors were certainly good in 2012, they weren’t great. They lost to Northern twice, they were upended at home by Carroll and despite a regular season title, they stayed home for the national tournament. And though they’re off to a slow start in 2013, the Warriors have a big weapon in returning Frontier Player of the Year Niurka Toribio, a 6-2 outside hitter who can blast the ball as good as anyone, and has a wicked serve to boot. However, she’s surrounded by plenty of new faces this season, and if LC State is going to contend for the Frontier crown, the Warriors will have to have many of those talented, but new faces gel together.

Rocky Mountain College Battlin’ Bears

2013 Record: 8-2

2012: 14-18 overall, 8-8 in the Frontier

Tied for 5th Place

The 2012 season was supposed to be a big one for Rocky, especially coming off a trip to the NAIA national tourney the previous season. But the Bears struggled on the road in Frontier play, and many of Rocky’s talented newcomers just didn’t grow up fast enough for the Bears to really be a threat. That’s all changed in 2013. Rocky is off to a hot start, the Bears are nationally-ranked, and they certainly appear poised to be a serious threat to the Frontier title. Junior middle blocker Anna Dewald (6-3) makes the Bears go at the net. Junior Yang Yang (6-0, OH) from China is also a talented force up front, while 6-2, outside hitter Ahlea Billis is giving RMC great production up front. Setters Sky Gabel and Tori Bertsch are also looking sharp running RMC’s attack, and if the Bears stay healthy, and continue to control the net like they have in the pre-season, Rocky will be the team to beat come November.

MSU-Northern Skylights

2013 Record: 10-4

2012: 18-15 overall, 10-6 in the Frontier

Tie 3rd Place, Frontier runner-up

There’s no denying the amazing turnaround Bill Huebsch has made at Northern. When he took over five years ago, the Skylights were certainly one of the Frontier bottom-dwellers. But no more. Northern may be picked to finish fourth this season, but MSU-N has Frontier title aspirations, and the Skylights are loaded with talent to do so. Abby Nicholas is a force across the front row, while fellow senior Kelsey Williams had a monster preseason and is starting for the third straight year. Senior setter Joni Nagy also has a wealth of talent and experience, while Holly Cartwright is easily one of the best libero’s in the NAIA. Add in 6-2 newcomer Annie Ferris and the return of Haley Russell at the net, as well as sisters Dayna and Erin Jensen, and perhaps no team in the Frontier has as much talent in its rotation as the Skylights. Northern will be tough to beat at home, and if the Skylights can steal a few quality wins on the road, they could end up topping their magical season of 2012.

Westminster College Griffins

2013 Record: 6-7

2012: 14-13 overall, 7-8 in the Frontier

7th Place

The Griffins have hung around the middle of the Frontier pack for years now. Always picked to finish high, Westminster seems to dip toward the end of the season and has always had trouble winning on the road in the Frontier. But once again, the Griffins aren’t short on talent. Alexis Alona (6-0, OH) is a budding star on offense, while junior middle blocker Mayra Ramirez (6-2) is a force in the front row. Senior Kyndall Kordakis is also one of the top defensive players in the league. And if the Griffins can find a way to win on the road, while always defending their home court, they’ll certainly have a chance to finish near the top of the league, instead of in the bottom half like the last few seasons.

University of Great Falls Lady Argos

2013 Record: 4-9

2012: 19-12 overall, 10-6 in the Frontier

Tie 3rd Place

After being a dominant force in the Frontier for much of the last decade, not much was expected from UGF in 2012. Yet, the Argos went on a great run late in the season and wound up finishing tied with Northern for third place in the regular season. But UGF graduated a pair of top offensive weapons from last season, including star middle Kelsey Van Uden, who was among the NAIA leaders in kills. Head coach Arunas Duda has recruited a big roster, and the Argos do return 6-1 hitter Alyssa McEwan as well as starting setter Averi Pasma, but overall UGF is a relatively new team this season, and it will take time for the Argos to put it all together.

Montana Tech Orediggers

2013 Record: 10-3

2012: 18-11 overall 8-8 in the Frontier

Tie 5th Place

If any team has a chance to do what Northern did in 2012, which was come from the back of the pack to the head of the table, that team is likely Montana Tech. The Orediggers are off to a great start in 2013, and they’ve added some quality offensive weapons to go with their always scrappy defense. Tech is young, with no seniors on its roster, and it remains to be seen if a young squad can stand up to the rigors of league play. But the Diggers aren’t lacking in talent. Sophomore defensive specialist Kimmy Kavran is back after leading the NAIA in digs a year ago. But Tech will also look to 5-9 middle hitter Korey Krumm and freshman outside hitter Jordan Danz to pace the offense. Annie Smoot (5-11) and Bailie Cortner also give the Diggers a taller block at the net, and if the young Tech team continues to grow and mature, the Diggers could surely be the surprise of the fall.

UM-Western Bulldogs

2013 Record: 6-7

2012: 10-19 overall, 5-11 in the Frontier

8th Place

It’s been a long time since UM-Western was a factor in the Frontier Conference. Once known as the premier volleyball program in the league, the Bulldogs have fallen on hard times. But in 2012, Western made significant strides, winning more than two league matches for the first time in four years, while also fielding a winning record at home. Like Tech, Western appears to be on the way up this fall. Also like Tech, the Bulldogs are young, with only one senior, so there will be growing pains. But with talented weapons like Emily Erickson (5-10 OH), Bailey Branson (5-9, OH) and Breanne Kelley (5-9 OH) up front, the Bulldogs will no longer be a walkover from the top Frontier teams.

Dickinson State Blue Hawks

2013 Record: 0-8

2012: 3-21 overall, 0-14 in the Frontier

Last Place

It was a dismal Frontier debut for the Blue Hawks, who went winless in 14 league matches last season. And with DSU moving to a new conference in 2014, it already appears like the Blue Hawk’s last season in the Frontier will be just as rough. DSU has yet to win a match this season and will struggle to do so in the Frontier. But with the talent of Melissa Avila in the front row, solid setting and a tough defense, DSU, like last year, won’t just lay down for the league’s powers.

 

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