The Montana State University-Northern volleyball team might be playing as well as anybody in the country right now. And the Skylights have a home-opening win over defending Frontier Conference champion Carroll College, and last Thursday night’s sweep at nationally-ranked Rocky Mountain College to prove it.
So it stands to reason, that with UM-Western and Westminster College, two teams coming to Havre this weekend with losing records, the Skylights’ roll will continue.
But make no mistake, Northern is on a mission, and one of the goals in that mission is to not let up. To not overlook any opponent.
That mission continues starting tonight when MSU-N (3-0, 12-4) hosts the UM-Western Bulldogs (0-3, 7-11) at 7 inside the Armory Gymnasium. Northern is home to host Westminster on Saturday afternoon as well.
Another goal set forth by the Skylights, who swept road matches last week in Billings and Dickinson, N.D., is to go undefeated at home for a second straight season, and that’s part of the reason why they won’t take the Bulldogs lightly tonight.
“Western is very much improved from last year, and I thought they were an improved team last season,” Northern head coach Bill Huebsch said. “Lisa (Griffiths) is doing a really nice job with that program. She’s bringing in some really good recruits, and so far this season, they’ve been a really competitive and tough team.”
Western is indeed talented, and the Bulldogs took the Skylights to the brink last fall in Dillon. Emily Erickson (5-10) leads the way with 183 kills, which is fourth in the Frontier Conference, but all around her, Western has talent. Breanne Kelley (5-9) has 160 kills, Bailey Branson (5-9) has 138 and Charelle Minor (6-1) is leading the Frontier with 69 blocks. Western has two quality setters in Paige Latimer and Rachelle Chamberlain, while libero Kendra Mendicino is second in the league in digs with 321.
“This is a dangerous team,” Huebsch said. “This is a team who is picked sixth in our league and yet they went on the road and beat one of the top-ranked teams in the country earlier this year. So we know, if we don’t show up with our best effort, we’ll get beat.
“They (Bulldogs) are not as tall as some of the teams we’ve faced, but they are aggressive at the net, and very good offensively. They also do a really good job defending in the back row. So we’re going to have to do what we do well. We need to continue to serve tough, block well at the net and continue to hit and counter-attack.”
Those things are all things the Skylights do well, and right now, they seem to be doing them as well as anybody around. Northern is first in the Frontier in nearly every offensive category, while senior hitters Abby Nicholas and Kelsey Williams continue to rack up huge numbers. Nicholas has a Frontier best 231 kills to go with 39 blocks this season, while Williams is second in the Frontier with 219 kills. Both are also in the Top 5 in the league in hitting percentage and kills per set. Dayna Jensen continues to make strides as well. She’s totaled 118 kills and 37 blocks this year, while Joni Nagy leads the Frontier in assists with 613, and Holly Cartwright has 256 digs, while getting help from freshman Sydney Stolearcius in the back row.
But talent and big numbers aren’t the only things pushing the Skylights towards new heights. MSU-N is also a veteran team that is getting mature contributions from a deep and talented group of younger players. The Skylights also seem to be phased by little, and that showed in their wins over Carroll and Rocky in the first two weeks.
And it’s those same kind of intangibles that Huebsch hopes show up again tonight, and on Saturday. Because not only does MSU-N have to deal with Western, but also the Westminster Griffins (1-2, 7-9).
Westminster possesses a potent offense, which is second only to Northern in several key categories. The Griffins, who beat MSU-N in a dramatic fifth set last year in Salt Lake City, but were swept in Havre, also have one of the top front-row players in the league in Alexis Aalona (6-0). The junior outside hitter is third in the Frontier with 184 kills and second with 69 blocks. Myra Ramirez, a 6-2 middle blocker adds 126 kills to the Griffins’ season total, while Emily Atkinson is second in assists and libero Kyndall Kordakis is first in the Frontier with 329 digs.
“Westminster is a very talented team that can really play good volleyball,” Huebsch said. “Aalona is as gifted a player as there is in our league, and she’s got a lot of talent around her. I know we say it all the time, but anybody can beat anybody in this league on a given night, and Westminster is certainly one of those teams that can beat anybody in this league.”
Of course, so too are the Skylights a team which is capable of beating anybody. And two more wins at home would go a long way in helping Northern chase down the Frontier title, and continue to gain national recognition in the NAIA Coaches Poll. This week, the Skylights got 78 votes in the poll, and are the highest-rated Frontier team. But all that aside, Huebsch also just wants to see his team play well, remain consistent and defend its home court.
“We’re playing good volleyball and we know we can’t afford to take a step back,” Huebsch said. “This league is too good to overlook anybody. So we’re just keeping it simple right now. It’s not rocket science for us. We want to go out on the floor and play our style, and not let anyone dictate the tempo to us. When we do that, I think we’re pretty tough to beat.”
Tonight’s match between the Skylights and Bulldogs is set for 7 inside the Armory Gymnasium. The Skylights host Westminster at 2 p.m. Saturday. Northern travels to Montana Tech and Carroll College next weekend.