With a three-game drubbing of Dickinson State on Thursday night, the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team was already able to call itself the Frontier Conference regular season champion.
But there was no way the Skylights wanted to share that title with anyone else, and the only way for that to happen was for the Rocky Mountain College Battlin' Bears to beat Northern in the regular season finale, on senior night, in front of the largest crowd to ever see a volleyball match in Havre.
No way the Skylights were about let that happen. And they didn't.
The No. 25 Skylights withstood a strong charge from the Bears, but still won in four sets, by scores of 25-12, 23-25, 28-26 and 25-21, claiming the school's first outright league championship since 1991 Friday night at the Armory Gymnasium, in front of a near sellout crowd.
"I'm just ecstatic right now," Northern senior Abby Nicholas said. "I've never felt this emotional about a win before. I'm so happy for this team, so proud of my team. This is the best experience of my career.
"It's such a mixture of emotions right now," Northern head coach Bill Huebsch added. "It will probably take a while for this all to sink in. But pride is the biggest one. I'm so proud of these girls for all they've accomplished and the way they've accomplished it. They work hard, they are great people and great students and they do things the right way. And I'm happy for the school and the community. This means a lot."
The win over Rocky indeed means a lot, not just in terms of a regular season championship, but it also earned the Skylights (15-1, 24-5) the No. 1 seed in this week's Frontier tournament, as well as will keep the Skylights inside the NAIA Top 25, which means they're chances of reaching the national tournament are very, very good.
But it was also big because it capped off one of the most dominant regular season's in recent Frontier history, and it was against a team which has typically been a thorn in Northern's side in recent years.
"Rocky is a very good team," Huebsch said. "And we knew, even after the first set, they would push us, they are too good of a team not too. (Yang) Yang was incredible tonight, and they played really well after the first set. But I just thought our kids showed so much heart and character tonight. They're a resilient group. They have been all season long and they were again tonight."
Northern had to be resilient because in spite of an impressive 25-12 win in the opening set, the Skylights found themselves taking blows from the tall and athletic Bears the rest of the way.
MSU-N came out on fire, ripping off a 6-0 run behind kills from Erin Jensen and Nicholas to lead 12-5. From there, the Bears had no answer for Northern's onslaught. The Skylights hit an astounding .500 for the set with 18 kills, while Kelsey Williams finished it off with a cross-court smash.
However, as good as Northern played in the first, questions of a blowout were quickly answered by the second-place Bears. In a back-and-forth second set, Northern found itself leading 22-20 after a Dayna Jensen kill. But RMC responded with a Brienna Geck block and two Yang kills. That stretch, coupled with a pair of Northern errors, gave the Bears a 24-23 lead, and when MSU-N accidentally called time out when the Skylights didn't have one, the Bears took the set and evened the match at 1-1.
"That was a huge mistake on my part," Huebsch said of the time out call. "I take full responsibility for that, and that could have really hurt us in the long run. But credit to our kids because they didn't let it. They went out and responded in the third set, they showed a lot of heart in battling Rocky, who had really started to play well at that point.
"This team has always come together when there's adversity," Williams said. "And we did that again tonight. We knew, even after the first set, that Rocky would come back. We knew they wanted to come in here and beat us. So I think we were ready for that. How close this team is, how much character this team has, it just really shows in situations like that. And it showed tonight."
And never was Northern's character and resiliency more evident than in what was a dramatic third set.
Rocky seemed to have all the momentum, and the Bears built up a 6-2 lead early on. Northern closed the gap behind strong of kills from Nicholas and Dayna Jensen, but Rocky was still in front at 15-14 midway through. However, back-to-back kills by Williams and Dayna Jensen gave MSU-N the lead at 16-15 and from there, things got really wild.
There were seven more lead changes, with Rocky finding itself ahead 25-24 and a chance to go ahead 2-1. But on senior night, a senior took over. Williams saved the set point with a kill, then saved another with a kill at 26-25. A third straight kill by Williams gave Northern a 27-26 lead and its first set point. And who else, Williams came through again. Her fourth straight kill gave the Skylights a 28-26 victory and the lead they needed to go on and put the Bears away.
The fourth set wasn't easy, with eight different lead changes, but at 20-19, the Skylights didn't look back as two kills by Nicholas, one by Erin Jensen and an error by Rocky ended things in dramatic fashion.
"I thought everybody did something key tonight," Huebsch said. "Whether it was a dig to keep a rally going, or a block when we really needed it, a tough serve, I thought this was really a complete team win. Those four kills by Kelsey in the third set were huge. The way the girls played in that third set was incredible. They really showed a lot of heart and poise because that was a great set by both teams. But in all, I thought everybody really played together and played well and everyone had a hand in this tonight. I'm really just so proud of this team."
Fittingly, seniors were huge on senior night, but like Huebsch said, Northern got contributions from its entire lineup. Nicholas totaled 19 kills, three blocks and 13 digs, while Williams had 19 kills, two aces and 15 digs. Joni Nagy had an astounding 64 assists to go with 15 digs and a key block in what was a tremendous all-around performance, while Holly Cartwright had 19 digs and an ace and Haley Russell had four kills and half of a block. Dayna Jensen totaled 14 kills and a block, while sister Erin Jensen had 13 kills on a night when Northern hit .272 and racked up 70 kills. MSU-N also served five aces, and though the Bears, who were led by Yang's 23 kills and four blocks, out-blocked the Skylights 12-7, MSU-N's defense was crucial, as the Skylights totaled 97 digs, including a team-high 22 by freshman Sydney Stolearcius.
"The way we started, the kids were so pumped up and we played so well early, that was a great start," Huebsch said. "And I don't think we played poorly in the second set, but losing that set and then falling behind in the third, that could have been a fatal blow to a younger team. But this team is so resilient and they stay so poised. Credit to Rocky for playing so well, but in that third set, it's as if our kids weren't going to be denied. They played some great volleyball in that moment, and it carried over into the fourth set. It was just a really well-played match by both teams, and we're very excited we came out with a win."
The win also meant the Skylights finished the season unbeaten at home. And Northern's home court proved to be a big advantage as the huge Armory crowd was loud and boisterous throughout the night. And with the large crowd, with a great effort by the Skylights, it all added up to one of the most memorable volleyball matches in Northern history.
"Can't say enough about our fans," Huebsch said. "The crowd tonight was incredible. It was amazing to look up and see our gym so full for a volleyball match. In our league, there's no doubt in my mind we always have the best fans, but tonight was special. To have that many people come out and support this team is amazing and I know it helped the kids during that match.
"And I think that is a credit to these girls and what they've accomplished," he added. "This is a very special team. They've done some things that haven't been done in this program for a very long time, and tonight's win is at the top of that list of accomplishments. I'm just very proud of these girls, and more so, very happy for them. They've earned this through all of their hard work, and tonight is a night that they'll never forget."
With the Frontier regular season title in the bag, the Skylights will now turn their attention to some unfinished business in the postseason. Northern was the runner-up at last year's Frontier tourney, and the Skylights have their sights firmly set on changing that this week in Great Falls.
"This is awesome, but we can't get overly excited," Nicholas said. "We'll enjoy this for now, but then we'll get back to work and get focused on the tournament. We want to keep this going, and take this all the way to the tournament championship."
Northern will face either UM-Western or Dickinson State in the first round of the Frontier tournament at 12 p.m. Friday. The 2013 Frontier tournament will run Friday-Saturday at the McLaughlin Center in Great Falls.
MSU-N senior Joni Nagy, right, sets a pass during Friday night's match against RMC in Havre.
Skylights are 15-1 in the Frontier, 24-5 overall; Next Up: Frontier Tourney in Great Falls
Skylights def. Rocky
25-12, 23-25, 28-26, 25-21
RMC - Kills: 53 (Yang Yang 23, Anna Dewald 11). Assists: 50 (Tori Bertsch 46). Aces: 0. Digs: 91 (Brooke Myers 16, Yang 15, Bertsch 13, Kylie Nielsen 13). Blocks: 12 (Yang 4, Brieanna Geck 3.5).
MSU-N - Kills: 70 (Abby Nicholas 19, Kelsey Williams 19, Dayna Jensen 14). Assists: 69 (Joni Nagy 64). Aces: 5 (Williams 2). Digs: 97 (Sydney Stolearcius 22). Blocks: 7 (Nicholas 3).