Northern spikers stay unbeaten in the Frontier with a four-set win over UM-Western
For the first two weeks of the Frontier Conference volleyball season, the Montana State University-Northern Skylights went unbeaten and made winning look relatively easy. However, beating the UM-Western Bulldogs turned out to be anything but.
On Thursday night, in front of a large crowd at the Armory Gymnasium, the Skylights had to come back from a 1-0 deficit to defeat the scrappy Bulldogs in four sets and improve to 4-0 in league play. Northern knocked off Western by scores of 25-27, 25-23, 25-20 and 25-16, and the match was a fight from start to finish.
“Western deserves a ton of credit,” Northern head coach Bill Huebsch said. “They have improved a ton, and tonight they came out and did some really good things. They played really good volleyball, especially at the start of the match, and this was our slowest start in a first set all season, and Western deserves the credit for that.”
The Skylights did indeed get off to a less-than-stellar start in what would be a tense first set. The Bulldogs took an early lead on a Breanne Kelley kill, but with two kills from Dayna Jensen and two more from Abby Nicholas and Joni Nagy, the Skylights found themselves ahead 18-14. From there however, Western exploited a struggling MSU-N defense, which didn’t seem to have an answer for Bulldog hitter Emily Erickson. Western regained the lead and eventually led 23-20 before the Skylights fought back one more time. It wasn’t enough however, and though MSU-N saved three set points, Western prevailed on an error by Northern which finished the set off.
“We kind of scuffled a bit at early on,” Huebsch said. “We just didn’t defend very well in that first set and our serve-receive wasn’t very good and because of that, we couldn’t get in system. We have a great offense, but it doesn’t matter much if we can’t stay in system. And Western it .469 in that first set and that’s tough to beat. So credit to them for playing well right from the start.”
Though it was tough, MSU-N seemed to regain its footing in the second set, only to watch Western pull away for a time. The teams traded leads six times early, but Northern found itself trailing 20-15 late in the set. And that’s when MSU-N finally picked up the pace on both ends. Erin Jensen had three kills and a block during what would be an emphatic 9-0 Northern run. That surge gave the Skylights a 23-20 lead and two kills by Nicholas finished off Western and evened the match at 1-1, breathing new life into the Skylights, and their raucous fans.
“We just had to push through,” Nicholas, who recorded a match-high 26 kills said. “I think we underestimated Western a little bit and they really came out swinging hard. But once we figured it out, we were able to start shutting them down and start playing better ourselves. I think we just really pulled together as a team and we were able to overcome a night when we weren’t playing our best.”
While Northern didn’t play its best early, the win in the second set catapulted the Skylights to another home victory.
The Skylights went on a 5-0 run midway through the third set, with Kelsey Williams leading the way with some monster smashes. On defense, MSU-N started to dig a few more balls in the back row, which led to more chances for Williams and Nicholas, who helped finish off the Bulldogs in the third, and allowed the Skylights to really put their foot on the gas and dominate the fourth set. A block by Nicholas and Alexis Nelson gave Northern a 20-10 lead in the final frame and the Skylights never looked back.
“About halfway through the second set, we changed it up a little defensively at the net, and we started to get a few more touches,” Huebsch said. “And slowly, as the match wore on, our defense got better and better and that was a big difference. We just started playing better defense, and we also hit better and better as the match went on. Once we were finally able to get into a rhythm, we were able to control the tempo a little bit more and that worked in our favor.”
Nicholas and Williams paved the way for the Skylights in their comeback win. Nicholas added 12 digs, a block and an ace to go with her match-high kill total. Williams came up with 19 kills herself, and also recorded a solo block. Dayna Jensen totaled eight kills and two blocks, while Joni Nagy had 55 assists, 11 digs and two aces. Holly Cartwright paced MSU-N’s back row with a match-high 23 digs. As a team, Northern wound up with seven blocks, six of them coming after the first set.
Erickson led the Bulldogs (0-4, 7-10) with 20 kills and two blocks.
And though it wasn’t easy, the Skylights found ways to defend their home floor and remain unbeaten in the Frontier with a good Westminster team coming to Havre on Saturday afternoon.
“There was no panic,” Huebsch said. “Younger teams might have folded in the situation we were in tonight, but we are a veteran team and I thought we kept our composure very well, and our leaders led us like we expect them to. Abby had a monster night, Kelsey had a huge night and we rallied around all of our veterans. We didn’t play our best, but at the end of the day, we’re excited to get another win in this conference and that’s all that matters.
“We know we have to defend our home floor,” Nicholas added. “It was a struggle at times tonight, but we pulled together. We got over not playing our best and we got the win. And I’m glad we did.”
Northern is back in the Armory to face the Westminster Griffins Saturday at 2 p.m. MSU-N goes on the road next week.
Northern's Kelsey Williams, left,goes for a shot during Thursday night's match in Havre.
Skylights are 4-0 in the
Frontier and 13-4 overall; Next Up: Westminster on Saturday
Skylights def. UM-Western
25-27, 25-23, 25-20, 25-16
UM-W – Kills 41 (Emily Erickson 20, Brea Mitchell 8), Assists 38 (Rachelle Chamberlain 28), Aces 5 (Kendra Mendicino 3), Digs 63 (Chamberlain 15, Breanne Kelly 12, Bailey Branson 11, Mendicino 11), Blocks 6 (Erickson 2).
MSU-N – Kills 65 (Abby Nicholas 26, Kelsey Williams 19, Dayna Jensen 8), Assists 59 (Joni Nagy 55), Aces 3 (Nagy 2, Nicholas 1), Digs 69 (Holly Cartwright 23, Nicholas 12, Nagy 11), Blocks 7 (D. Jensen 2).