It's getting late in the Frontier Conference season, and yet, the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team remains perfect.
But even with a No. 24 ranking in the NAIA, a 12-0 conference record and 21 total wins on the season, the Skylights still have plenty of challenges ahead of them. Northern has a two-game lead over Rocky Mountain College in the Frontier standings, but the Skylights will have to rise to the occasion once more if they're going to keep it, because this weekend will be Northern's last road trip, and its toughest to date.
Tonight, MSU-N is in Dillon to face the feisty UM-Western Bulldogs. Then, after a day off, the Skylights will pay a visit to fourth-place Westminster College, another gym in which MSU-N has had no success in the last decade.
"We are happy to continue the roll that we are on," Northern head coach Bill Huebsch said. "Every time we play somebody for the second time it is going to be a lot harder. Everybody is improving, but everybody also wants to be the first team to beat us."
The roll the Skylights are on is into its third month. MSU-N hasn't lost a match since being swept by nationally-ranked Madonna University back on Aug. 31 in Daytona Beach, Fla. In that time, the Skylights have reeled off a 14-match winning streak, including a pair of victories over NCAA Division II opponents, as well as their 12 straight conference wins.
And while MSU-N continues to shine statistically, especially offensively, it's maturity that has also carried Northern this far, and this deep into the conference season without a loss. The Skylights were tested in five-set wins over Lewis-Clark State and Montana Tech last weekend in Havre, and at times, Northern wasn't firing on all cylinders, but the Skylights pulled through because of heart and veteran leadership.
"It's unreasonable to think we're going to be able to play at such a high level, night after night, especially in this league," Huebsch said after beating LCSC last Friday. "At some point, we're going to be off a little. At some point, things aren't going to go your away. But this team has a lot of poise and a lot of mental toughness and that makes a big difference in those types of matches. And we've got two more of those coming up with this trip to Western and Westminster."
Tonight's trip to Dillon will be one of those matches in which the Skylights' poise and maturity will be tested. The Bulldogs (2-10, 9-18) took a set off of Northern back on Sept. 26 in Havre, before the Skylights prevailed 3-1. And though the Bulldogs' record doesn't reflect it, they are a dangerous club. They took Northern to a grueling five sets last season in Dillon, and will no doubt be excited tonight, with the opportunity to be the first team to take the Skylights down.
Emily Erickson is a star hitter for Western, who has 274 kills on the season, while Breanne Kelly can also rifle the ball over the net. As a team, Western has a powerful attack, and also has length at the net, as the Bulldogs are sixth in the Frontier in blocking.
Of course, MSU-N can counter with plenty of firepower. Abby Nicholas continues to lead the league with 416 kills, while Kelsey Williams is second with 367. Junior Dayna Jensen is also coming on strong, as is sister Erin Jensen, who is up to 18th in the Frontier with 49 blocks for the season. Joni Nagy is also having a great all-around season. The senior setter leads the Frontier with 1,025 assists, while she's 15th in the Frontier with 261 digs. Fellow senior Holly Cartwright is fourth in the Frontier in digs and has 20 service aces.
And that firepower will be needed, not just tonight in Dillon, but Saturday in Salt Lake City. Even though the Skylights blew out Westminster (7-5, 13-12) back in September in the Armory Gymnasium, the Griffins are a team on the rise, and Northern has never found success in their gym.
Westminster is a powerful offensive squad, led by 6-0 outside hitter Alexis Aalona. She is fifth in the Frontier with 288 kills, while she has 53 blocks on defense. Aalona is also surrounded by talent and size. Jovana Sisovic, a 6-2 right side hitter has an impressive 62 blocks this season, while 6-2 middle blocker Mayra Ramirez has 91 blocks, second-best in the league, to go along with 201 kills. The Griffins also have experience and leadership with senior setter Emily Atkinson and senior libero Kyndall Kordakis, so Northern's latest foray to Salt Lake will certainly be a tough one.
Tonight's match between the Skylights and Bulldogs will start at 7 in Dillon. Saturday's match between Northern and Westminster starts at 2 p.m. in Salt Lake City. The Skylights close the regular season with home matches against Dickinson State on Nov. 7 and Rocky Mountain College Nov. 8.