It was just seven days ago that the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team dismantled the Great Falls Argos in the Armory Gymnasium. And it was just seven days ago that the Skylights ended the first half of the Frontier Conference season with a perfect record.
Now, the Skylights and Argos meet in a rematch as the second half of the season, and the race for the conference championship really begins.
Tonight in Great Falls, Northern (8-0, 17-4) takes on the Argos (3-5, 8-14) in what will be a prelude to Northern's biggest match of the season so far, a showdown with Lewis-Clark State Saturday afternoon in Lewiston, Idaho.
However, as big as the match between Northern, which is in first place in the Frontier, and second-place LC State will be, the Skylights aren't looking past the Argos tonight, even though Northern easily beat UGF just seven days ago. MSU-N swept the Argos by scores of 25-14, 25-15 and 25-13.
"This is a big stretch for us," Northern head coach Bill Huebsch said. "Playing UGF a second time, and then we have back-to-back matches against LC (State). It's the most important part of our season so far.
"But, we have to take it one thing at a time," he continued. "My fear would be, the girls looking past Great Falls because we play LC (State) next. We need to avoid doing that. That would be a huge mistake. You can't overlook or take anyone lightly in this league. You do that, and you'll get beat. So we need to go into Great Falls exactly how we played them here. We need to be really focused and sharp and get off to a really good start."
The Skylights did that last Thursday night, and it led to them running away from UGF. In that match, both Dayna and Erin Jensen really rose to the occasion, while Northern also got a stellar outing from Kelsey Williams, who is second in the Frontier in kills, only behind senior teammate Abby Nicholas. Northern was also outstanding defensively, out-blocking UGF, while back row stalwart Holly Cartwright continued her fine play.
And though the Argos were thoroughly dominated in Havre, they also showed they have talent, and Northern will have to play at a high level tonight in order to get out of Great Falls with a season sweep. UGF's 6-5 middle hitter Becky Kershner is a rising star, while the Argos are tall all the way around, playing as many as four players which stand 6-0 or better.
"Everybody takes pride in defending their home court, and UGF is no different," Huebsch said. "We expect them to be very enthusiastic playing us at their home, especially considering how well we played last Thursday.
"I believe UGF is a much better team than what they showed in Havre," Huebsch said. "They'll make some adjustments and they'll be ready for us. So we have to be ready to counter that. We have to be sharp and intense and play our style of play again."
Regardless of the outcome tonight in Great Falls, Northern will then move on to the Warriors. MSU-N and LCSC started a great rivalry last season, as Northern beat the Warriors for the first time in Havre, then beat them again in the semifinals of the Frontier Conference Tournament last November.
And, with the Warriors (7-1, 13-9) trying to chase down the first-place Skylights, Saturday afternoon's match in Idaho will be a big one, and will have lasting effects on who wins the Frontier's regular season crown.
"They (Warriors) played a very difficult pre-season schedule," Huebsch said. "They always do that, and now you're seeing what kind of team they are. They have talent at every spot on the floor. Their outsides are very, very good. They play defense very well, and they serve really tough. They are just a real well-rounded team."
Reigning Frontier Player of the Year Niurka Toribio, a 6-2 outside hitter paces the potent Warrior offense. She has 236 kills, which is fourth in the league. She also has 25 service aces, while LCSC leads the Frontier in total aces. Treniesha Doyle (5-9, OH) is another weapon for LCSC on the outside, while middles Chelsea Strong (6-0) and Keisha Lubbert-Kennedy (6-3) give the Warriors a big block.
Still, as talented as LCSC is, Huebsch believes his team is every bit as good as long as its firing on all cylinders. Northern's offense is first in the Frontier in kills and hitting percentage, while the Skylights have risen to fourth in blocking. MSU-N is also very tough defensively, and that should make for an interesting day in Lewiston, and again in Havre next Friday night.
"I think we match up pretty well," Huebsch said. "They're the same team we beat twice last year, and we're pretty much the same team too. We have a lot of the same strengths. So I expect it to be a really good match. We just have to play our style and do what we do well. Our serve-receive has to be very good and we have to block well and play defense. Those things are always important for us, but they'll be really critical against LC."
It's a critical time of year too. There are just four weeks left in the regular season, and this weekend's road trip is part of a huge stretch for Northern. Tonight's match in Great Falls, two in a row against LCSC, and a home match against Montana Tech all happens in the next eight days.
"It's a tough stretch for us," Huebsch said. "But we're looking forward to it. We've never won in Great Falls or at LC since I've been here, and those are things this team wants to accomplish. As much as we've already accomplished, I like our attitude right now. The kids aren't satisfied. They still have that chip on their shoulder. They still want to gain that national respect.
"So they're anxious to get back on the floor and play these next two matches," he continued. "It's going to be a very interesting weekend."
Tonight's match between Northern and UGF will start at 7 inside the McLaughlin Center in Great Falls. MSU-N's match with LC State will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday in Lewiston, Idaho.