There are so many special things going on right now with the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team, it would be tough to list them all from A-Z. Then again, starting with the letter A is no trouble at all.
The word special certainly applies to Northern senior right side hitter Abby Nicholas. Though you wouldn’t know it by her demeanor, Nicholas has been special since the day she stepped foot onto the Armory Gymnasium floor. And it’s no coincidence that the Skylights have been extraordinary ever since.
Nicholas, who currently leads the Frontier Conference and is 15th nationally with 366 kills, arrived at Northern in the spring of 2012. A native of Sandy, Utah, she played at Laramie Community College for two seasons, where she was an All-Conference performer and had plenty of options to continue her volleyball career.
But she chose Northern, and at the time of her arrival, things were slowly starting to click for head coach Bill Huebsch, who was charged with rebuilding the MSU-N program five years ago. But with the arrival of Nicholas, and several other key recruits that year, the rebuilding process kicked into overdrive, and now the Skylights are a Frontier power, nationally ranked, and they’re on the verge of going places the program hasn’t been in decades.
“I actually didn’t know anything about Northern until I came for a visit,” Nicholas said. “I had verbally committed to a DII in Colorado, and I had some other offers too. Western and Westminster were options at that time.
“But my nursing degree is very important to me, and when I looked into Northern a little more, that program was what got me to come up here. It was pretty late that spring, but when I got up here, I found out about how great the people are here, I found out how great the fan base is, the new gym floor, all of that, and I really clicked with all the girls right away. I loved the environment here and I could tell they were trying to build something great and I really wanted to be a part of that. I’m so glad I made the choice I did. I couldn’t be happier with my decision now.”
And Northern has been all too happy to have to the 6-0 Nicholas, who has racked up an astounding 745 kills and 162 blocks in her time with the Skylights. And in that time, Northern had its best season in over a decade in 2012, with Nicholas earning Frontier First-Team All-Conference honors as the Skylights reached the conference championship match.
Things have only gotten better in her final season too. Northern enters this weekend’s home stand against Lewis-Clark State and Montana Tech a perfect 10-0 in the Frontier and 19-4 overall. The Skylights have been a juggernaut on both sides of the net, and while Nicholas has been nearly unstoppable, her entire team is playing at the same level.
And though her statistics this season are enormous, and she will certainly be a Frontier Player of the Year candidate at season’s end, it’s the winning that matters most to Nicholas, not being the Skylight’s star player.
“Definitely the wins and just playing for my team, that’s what’s really important,” Nicholas said. “This team is so close, we all play for each other and it’s so great to be a part of that. I love knowing that I have been able to be a part of building this team. We have so many great players on this team, and everybody is there for each other, and I think that’s why we’re so successful. It’s a really cool experience being part of this.
“What makes Abby special is she has all the physical attributes of a great volleyball player,” Huebsch added. “But when you combine that with her being a tremendous competitor and an extremely high volleyball I.Q., that is what makes her unique.”
Being part of a team is also the unique factor which drew Nicholas to volleyball in the first place. She said she didn’t even play the sport until her freshman year of high school. At that time, basketball was her thing, but her father thought it would be a good idea to get involved in multiple sports. And once she tried volleyball, she took to it instantly. By her sophomore year, hoops was in Nicholas’ past and she was a full-fledged volleyball player. And she’s never looked back.
“I tried volleyball on a whim,” she said. “At that time, basketball was my main sport, but once I started playing volleyball I fell in love with it. I gave up basketball and was concentrating full-time on volleyball by my sophomore year. I started playing club volleyball, so I was focusing on it all the way through the spring. And gradually, I just got better and better.
“It is my passion,” she added. “I love the interaction with the girls, with my teammates. It’s a true team sport because you have to rely on your entire team on the floor. No one can do everything by themselves in volleyball. And I just love being a part of that.”
Certainly, Nicholas is a star on the volleyball court, and has been for quite some time now, but there’s no doubt the team aspect of the sport is what she’s all about. And now she’s a leader on a team doing things many MSU-N fans never thought they’d see happen. And a leadership role is another part of the sport that Nicholas embraces.
“Being a leader has been something that’s always came naturally to me,” Nicholas said. “And leadership is really important in volleyball. And our team has great leadership. This is my most favorite team I’ve ever been on. It’s so much fun to be a part of it. It’s so much fun to get kills, knowing that you’re helping the whole team, knowing that you’re lifting the whole team up. It’s just so much fun to be a part of it.”
Nicholas also says it’s fun to play for Huebsch, who in turn, has the utmost respect for his star hitter.
“She is a great teammate and makes others around her better,” Huebsch said “We are so fortunate to have been able to recruit her to Northern and it has been a privilege to coach her the last two years. She is one of those special players that a coach only gets an opportunity to be around only a few times in a career. We are lucky enough to have a couple of players like that this year and Abby is certainly one of them.”
“He cares about us as people, not just as players,” Nicholas said of her head coach. “He listens to what we have to say. He always wants our input. I’ve played for a lot of coaches who aren’t like that. A lot of coaches, all they care about is what you do for them on the court, but he really cares about our well-being. It has been a great experience to play for him. It means a lot to know your coach cares about you as a person.
“And he works very hard to keep helping us get better, to keep making this program better” she added. “He’s always working, he’s always recruiting, he’s always working on ways to make us better. He’s just really devoted to this team and to this program.”
The devotion is a two-way street. Nicholas and the Skylights are certainly devoted to making the 2013 season much more unforgettable than even 2012 was. The Skylights are on a roll, and though there’s a long way to go, Nicholas knows her career is winding down, and she is already reflective about what has happened during her time at Northern, and what she’ll take away from the experience.
“I think I knew we had the potential to get to this level,” she said. “But the things that have happened so far have even surpassed my expectations. When you think about being able to achieve a national ranking, to build the record we have and all of those things, I knew the potential was there, but now it’s actually here. It’s actually happening. It’s just amazing to think about.
“And it’s going by fast,” she added. “In a way, I kind of wish it would slow down because I know it will all be over eventually. But then again, I’m always so excited to play. I’m so excited to get to the next game because it’s so much fun. I just love playing with this team, I love playing with my teammates, So I’m always looking forward to the next match and seeing what we can do.”
Northern senior Abby Nicholas sets a pass during a Frontier Conference volleyball match against UM-Western last month in Havre. Nicholas currently leads the Frontier in kills.
It’s no surprise Nicholas is looking forward to the next match. Since the day she started playing volleyball, she developed a passion for it, and that passion burns bright every time she steps on the court. Abby Nicholas is a star. She was meant to be a volleyball star, and right now, the stars are aligned for her and the Skylights.
But no matter how many kills and blocks and digs she racks up in her final days at Northern, being a star isn’t what she’ll remember. The reason she fell in love with volleyball was because she got to be part of a team. It’s that aspect that she loves most. And her current team is a true team, and it’s one she’ll never forget.
“I’m going to miss the entire volleyball experience,” she said. “But mostly the people I’ve met here. The people in Havre have been great. And all of my teammates, we are so close and we play so well together, I’m going to really miss that the most. Just being out there with them, having the success we’ve had together. That’s what I’ll always remember.”