After what the Montana State University-Northern Skylights volleyball team has been able to accomplish in recent seasons, more specifically over the last two years, there is no taking away from each player's efforts, or from the program as a whole. But on the flipside, with five extremely talented seniors helping lead the way through the 2013 season, it is also easy to point out just how important this group of leaders has been.
Kelsey Williams, Joni Nagy, Haley Russell, Holly Cartwright and Abby Nicholas are all nearing the end of their final season with the Skylights volleyball program. And maybe, the only way to describe what this senior group has helped accomplish over the last two years is unforgettable.
"It's really hard to summarize, or point to just one thing about this senior class," Northern head coach Bill Huebsch said. "Because they've impacted this program on so many different levels. They've helped this program turn a major corner. And it's because of their work ethic, their dedication to this program and to each other, and their competitiveness. It's really hard to just pick one thing about this group.
"They are all hard workers, they're good people, good students and it's a group you just enjoy coaching every day," Huebsch added. "It's a group that you wish things would never end with because they are that special."
Special is right. The five seniors have helped push this Skylights into a tier that a lot of NAIA players would only dream about being in, especially as a career finale.
Currently, the Skylights are sitting at the top of the Frontier Conference (14-1, 23-5). And their lone conference loss didn't come until last Saturday when they lost to fourth-place Westminster 3-2. It was a devastating loss to a program that had the potential to run the table on the rest of the league this season, but it doesn't even begin to make a dent in what giant leaps forward the program has taken forward under Huebsch and a great group of senior leaders. The Skylights can clinch a regular season conference title tonight if they defeat second-place Rocky Mountain College.
"The only thing that would have made things better (to this point) would be to go undefeated," Nagy said. "But really this is all we can ask for, we have a good group of girls and we are going to go out as hard as possible, with as many wins possible, and with the best ranking possible. And now we just need to get to nationals and prove we were meant to be there by getting wins. Carroll made it last year and didn't do anything. And (defeating Rocky) would pump us up so much and give us so much confidence going into the final tournament, knowing we beat the second place team. They are going to be our strongest competition at the Frontier tournament I feel like, so if we can go in there after beating them, it will add to our confidence."
Skylight confidence isn't hard to come by this year, especially after so many big wins, and finally earning that always coveted national ranking this season. They previously held the No. 24 ranking in the nation, but were dropped down to No. 25 after the loss to Westminster in the current poll. But with how tight these seniors have gotten over the last two years, a little adversity shouldn't do anything but fire this squad up.
"It was nice to get that (first ranking)," Williams said. "And that is when our community support really came out because everybody knew that we deserved it, and we also knew that we deserved that. And coach printed it out when it was announced and hung it on the net, and that was just an awesome moment. It is good that we remained in the rankings, and it is just nice to know that we are earning some respect from everybody else.
"It has been really nice playing with the rest of these seniors," she added. "We all played together for the first time last year, I have played with Holly for three years, and Joni, Haley, and Abby all came in last year, so having spring together really helped us all click really well this season. And we do get along with each other really well, so I think that is why we have been able to be successful, we just mesh really well together."
But the national ranking is just the tip of the iceberg.
Last season, the first year the seniors all played together turned into a snowball effect of accomplishments. A 10-6 Frontier record meant the first winning season in seven years for the Skylights. They tied for third place in the Frontier (15-13 overall), and beat LC State twice. The biggest win over LC State came in the Frontier semifinals, putting the Skylights in the finals to face Carroll. They went to five sets in the chipper, and were just two points from making the national tournament.
Last year was hard to top, but this year has been even better.
With their 23 wins, the Skylights have earned the most wins by a MSU-N team In 15 years. They can also win the first regular season title in more than a decade with a win over Rocky on Friday night. They earned their first national ranking in nearly 20 years. The Skylights are also leading the Frontier in hitting percentage, kills, and assists. Nicholas and Williams are first and second in kills in the Frontier, and Nagy is No. 1 in assists, while Cartwright has over 1,500 career digs.
And all that equals wins, as they have lost only one home match in the last two seasons. This season, they won at Great Falls, at Rocky, and at Lewis and Clark, each for the first time in six years. The win at Lewis and Clark was the first win for Northern there since the Warriors joined the Frontier Conference.
The Skylights have also had five Frontier Player of the Week's this season. Nicholas earned the honor an impressive three different times, while Williams and Nagy grabbed the honor one time reach. Cartwright, a four year starter also earned Second-Team All-Conference honors in 2012, while a three-year starter in Williams earned the same honors in 2012, and a two-year starter, Nicholas also earned First-Team All-Conference honors in 2012.
"This group of seniors, collectively has achieved so much already, it's really hard to narrow it down," Huebsch said. "There have been some very good Northern teams in the past, and some very good players in this program in the past. But this group, collectively put Northern volleyball back on the national radar for the first time in almost 20 years. They are an extremely special group of players, it's been an honor to coach them, and their impact on this program will be felt for years to come."
There is no doubt that this is a tight knit group of seniors. And that's another reason why the Skylights have been able to find such success. It isn't always easy bringing in athletes from all over the United States and Canada, and have them gel like this team has. And to have five talented seniors help lead the way like they do, that is even more uncommon as each and every one is more willing to share the spotlight with any of her teammates.
"Having the amount of players that we do has helped," Williams said. "We have a small team so we spend a lot of time together. But we also have personalities that fit and don't clash, and that helps a lot.
"It trades off every night because every senior has that leadership quality," Nagy added. "If one of us gets down, somebody else always steps up. If we see anybody down we bring them up, it really is like having five captains on the court sometimes. That helps when we have five players to fill that role."
MSU-N isn't done with this season by a long shot. With one more regular season match tonight, the Skylights are also looking to help their seniors finish strong, hopefully propelling the team into a great postseason. And a regular season title could lead to a Frontier Conference tournament title, and hopefully a great run at the national tournament in Sioux City, Iowa.
"Accomplishing all those things we have is awesome," Williams said. "Especially being our senior year. Setting records and doing things that no other Northern team has done has been awesome, and it really is a great way to go out. But that is a motivator too. With our final games and nationals coming up, we are all very motivated to play as well as we can."
Cartwright, from Havre, Wiliams, from Helena, Nicholas, from Sandy, Utah, Nagy, from Chattaroy, Wash., and Russell, from Palm Desert, Calif., will all be honored before tonight's huge showdown with RMC.