GREAT FALLS — They say the third time’s a charm. And Saturday night in Great Falls, it was … just not for the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team.
The No. 24 Skylights saw their remarkable 2013 season come to a bitter end when they couldn’t get past the Rocky Mountain College Battlin’ Bears for a third time this season, as the Bears swept the Skylights in the championship match of the Frontier Conference Tournament in front of a huge crowd at UGF’s McLaughlin Center.
After losing to the Skylights twice in the regular season, including just last Friday in Havre, Rocky returned the favor by beating Northern by scores of 25-20, 26-24 and 29-27. The win gave RMC the Frontier’s automatic bid to the NAIA national tournament, while the Skylights’ season ended with a 26-6 record. Northern found out Sunday it did not receive an at-large berth to this week’s national tourney.
“I just feel bad for these kids right now,” Northern head coach Bill Huebsch, who led the Skylights to the Frontier regular season title said. “They’re hurting right now. There’s a lot of regret in that locker room. You just feel for them. It’s tough right now.”
The Skylights felt similarly after reaching the Frontier tourney title a year ago, only to lose to Carroll College in five grueling sets. But last year’s Northern team was young and on the rise. This year, MSU-N went through the regular season like a team of destiny, and Saturday night figured to be the coronation ceremony.
Rocky however, had other ideas.
After losing to MSU-N in straight sets back in September in Billings and in four sets Nov. 8 in the Armory Gymnasium, the Bears quickly showed that Saturday night was going to be different. RMC went on an early 5-0 run behind a devastating block, and, up 8-3, the Bears controlled the first set the rest of the way. RMC led 17-10 midway though, and though the Skylights fought back, getting the score to a manageable 19-17 on an Erin Jensen kill, RMC again pulled away, outscoring Northern 6-3 to take a 1-0 lead.
“I thought we were very tentative early in the match,” Huebsch said. “You expect some nerves because of the situation, but I thought we were just really tight and this is a veteran team and I didn’t expect us to play that way though pretty much the whole first set. Give Rocky the credit, too. They came out and played very aggressively right away. They played really well. But we did a lot of things early on that were pretty uncharacteristic for this team.”
For a time, the second set was more of the same. Two big smashes by Kylie Nielsen gave the Bears an early 9-4 lead. But the Skylights showed why they were the best team in the league all season long. On the strength of some great plays by Jensen, and three kills from Kelsey Williams, Northern fought back to tie the match at 15-15. And after a huge solo block by Frontier Player of the year Abby Nicholas, the Skylights were in front 18-16, and everything looked to be back to normal.
Later in the set, the Skylights held two set points at 24-22, but the story that unfolded after would be MSU-N’s undoing. Rocky’s Yang Yang saved one set point with a kill, and an Anna DeWald block tied things up at 24-24. Yang then gave RMC back the lead with another kill, and after a lengthy Rally, RMC staked itself to a 2-0 lead with yet another Yang putaway.
And not being able to finish was what held Northern back in the end.
The third set turned out to be a wild affair, but one the Skylights were in firm control of. Northern played its best volleyball of the night at the onset of the third, and ultimately built up a 17-10 lead. Rocky chipped away, but when Dayna Jensen pummeled a cross-court kill, the Skylights led 24-20, with four set points in hand.
Unfortunately, RMC wasn’t going to go away, and the Bears saved every one of the set points. But at 25-25, Kelsey Williams gave Northern another chance to stay in the match. Again Rocky saved it. The scenario would be repeated two more times, until Aleah Billis broke a 27-27 tie with a kill, and the Northern season came to an end one point later when an MSU-N dig hit the ceiling and the Skylights couldn’t keep the rally alive.
“It’s really tough,” Huebsch said. “All you can ask is to put yourself in the right position, and the last two sets, we put ourselves in a position to win both. But ball control and other errors hurt us in that situation. At this point in the season, you have to finish those sets, you have to execute in those situations. But we didn’t tonight. We didn’t finish and we normally do in those situations, but tonight it just didn’t happen. We didn’t execute.”
A lot of things didn’t happen for Northern, though the Skylights were agonizingly close to being up 2-1 instead of the sweep they suffered. Northern hit just .095 for the match, after leading the Frontier in hitting percentage all season long. MSU-N also had three service errors to Rocky’s none, while the Bears had 10 blocks to MSU-N’s seven.
Offensively, Williams had a match-high 16 kills to go with 22 digs. Nicholas had 12 digs and two blocks, while Dayna Jensen totaled nine kills and Erin Jensen had eight kills and 3.5 blocks. Joni Nagy served up two aces, while Holly Cartwright had 32 digs. RMC, which will play an NAIA playoff match this Saturday, got 14 kills and two blocks from Yang.
And though Saturday’s loss to the Battlin’ Bears won’t overshadow the Skylights’ season in the long run, it was a bitter pill for them to swallow, especially having come so close to a Frontier title and national tournament berth for the second year in a row. Northern did move up to No. 22 in the final regular season coaches poll, and the Skylight’s 26 wins were the most in modern school history, but Saturday’s loss will be a tough one to forget.
“What can you say, it was still a great season,” Huebsch said. “These kids did so many remarkable things. It’s been an amazing year and this is a great team. But right now, this hurts too much for them to think about that. This one will hurt for a while.”
Montana State University-Northern senior Kelsey Williams, right, blasts a ball past a Rocky Mountain College blocker during Saturday night's Frontier Conference championship match at the McLaughlin Center in Great Falls.
Skylights finish the season 26-6
Regular Season Champs
Rocky def. Skylights
25-20, 26-24, 29-27
RMC - Kills: 44 (Yang Yang 14, Kylie Nielsen 13). Assists: 41 (Tori Bertsch 39). Aces: 1 (Nielsen). Digs: 116 (Yang 28, Brooke Myers 22, Bertsch 14, Jennifer Donaldson 13, Ahlea Billis 12). Blocks: 10 (Yang 3, BrieAnna Geck 2.5, Anna Dewald 2).
MSU-N - Kills: 46 (Kelsey Williams 16, Abby Nicholas 12). Assists: 43 (Joni Nagy 37). Aces: 3 (Nagy 2). Digs: 111 (Holly Cartwright 32). Blocks: 7 (Erin Jensen 3.5).