Exactly a year ago to the day, the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team used a stunning win over then nationally-ranked Carroll College to begin what would become one of the most memorable volleyball seasons in Northern history.
Though a lot has changed for the Skylights since that season-opening win over the Fighting Saints last September inside a then unfinished Armory Gymnasium, things also remain the same.
Northern, which is no longer a team on the rise, but instead, is a Frontier Conference power, will once again open conference play against the Saints inside the Armory Gymnasium. Tonight’s home opener is set for 7.
And the stakes couldn’t be higher.
That magical ride for the Skylights might have begun with a win over Carroll, but it also ended with a devastating defeat at the hands of those same Saints in the Frontier Conference championship match last November. In that match, the Saints and Skylights went toe-to-toe for five grueling sets, before Carroll finally prevailed 18-16 in the fifth set.
Now, 10 months later, the two teams renew what has become one of the most intense rivalries in the Frontier, and Northern gets first crack at holding serve at home.
“This is going to be an exciting and emotional match,” MSU-N head coach Bill Huebsch said. “But there’s a fine line with that. For our returners, they’ve literally been thinking about, and talking about this match since that night last year in Butte. It’s a huge rivalry with us and Carroll anyway, but what happened to us in that match last year, it’s been in those girls’ minds all year. But we also have a new group of girls who weren’t there and don’t understand that hurt this team felt after getting so close.
“So it’s interesting,” he continued. “The kids are pumped up, they’re very excited for this match. But we don’t want them so amped up that it hurts us early. And they also have to realize, this is a long conference season, and this is just one match. We’ve got a lot of tough opponents ahead of us, not just Carroll. So we have to keep things in perspective.”
The conference season is a grind, but the only opponent that matters to the Skylights (10-4) right now is the Saints (7-7), and vice versa. Northern has really picked up the pace in recent weeks after opening the season with a loss in Great Falls. Since that first match, MSU-N has won 10 of its last 13 preseason bouts, while the Saints were up-and-down in the nonconference schedule, though they played a number of quality opponents.
“I feel like it’s kind of the same for both of us,” Huebsch said. “They’ve played several ranked teams and we did too. I think we both played really good schedules, and both teams are coming into this match very well prepared. I don’t think Carroll’s overall record is any reflection of how they are playing or how talented they are. We know full well just how tough a team they are. They are very talented, very tall, they are athletic, and they are well coached. That’s the team we’re expecting on Friday night.”
Indeed. The Saints return a host of talented players, especially in the front row. Senior Elli Graff (6-0 MH) led the league in blocks a year ago and is a great two-way player, perhaps the top middle in all of the Frontier. Rebecca Sweeney (5-10), Sarah Roshak (5-11), Calli Prestwood (6-2) and Kathleen Mulligan (6-2) are also four hitters which surround Graff and, together, the group forms as formidable a front as there is in the league. Carroll also brings back a standout defensive specialist in senior Catie Hanser, while setter Jenessa Taylor (6-0) provides even more height at the net.
Carroll senior, and former Havre High standout, Karla Hellegaard has also seen plenty of action as a hitter this season, but she’ll be out of the rotation tonight due to an ankle injury.
“Carroll is a very tall team,” Huebsch said. “They have a strong presence at the net. So obviously a big key for us will be hitting. And as always, trying to break them down with our serve-receive. But we’ve also got to have a strong presence at the net defensively. I felt like our block really improved last weekend in Great Falls, and we have to have that continue. Being strong defensively at the net is a big key for us in this match.”
While the Skylights hope for good blocking from the likes of Annie Ferris (6-2) and Erin Jensen (5-8), and they hope to get back injured senior middle Haley Russell, what Northern does best is kill the ball and play great back row defense. Senior Abby Nicholas is tops in the Frontier with a 190 kills on the season. Fellow senior Kelsey Williams is right behind her with 184 and junior Dayna Jensen is 14th in the league with 92 kills.
Meanwhile, MSU-N also has the always-steady Holly Cartwright in the back row. The former Blue Pony already has 213 digs on the young season, while senior Joni Nagy is doing a great job running Northern’s potent attack with a league-leading 490 assists.
So with how well Northern is playing on offense, leading the Frontier in hitting percentage and kills, and how good Carroll’s block is, something will have to give in tonight’s rivalry match – a match that once again figures to go right down to the wire.
The determining factor might very well be emotion, determination and composure.
“I feel like this is a great matchup,” Huebsch said. “Both teams are talented, both teams have some very good strengths, and both teams have a lot of experience. So on paper, it looks like it’s very close between us. And that’s the way things have gone the last few times we’ve played.
“I know Carroll will be ready for us,” Huebsch said. “And I know we’ll be ready. These kids have not only been looking forward to this match against Carroll, but also to playing at home. They love to play at home, and our goal is always to protect our home court. We want to win every match at home. And hopefully, we’ll have a big crowd, and it will be a very exciting night.”
Tonight’s match between the Skylights and Carroll begins at 7 inside the Armory Gymnasium. Northern returns to the road next week with matches at Rocky Mountain College and Dickinson State.