The 2013 volleyball season at Montana State University-Northern was one that will forever live in the history books. It was one no one will never forget.
The 2013 Skylights reeled off a school-record 26 wins against just six losses, while going a staggering 15-1 in Frontier Conference play en route to the regular season conference championship. Northern also reached the Frontier championship match for the second year in a row, eventually seeing its magical season come to an end against Rocky Mountain College last November in Great Falls.
Pretty much everything MSU-N did last season was a first, at least a first in over a decade or more, and the history that was made last year will be hard to duplicate. Now however, Northern will try to write a new chapter in the volleyball history books as the 2014 season gets underway for the Skylights this weekend in Spokane.
And though MSU-N is expected to be good yet again, and expectations and goals are set very high in the program, sixth-year head coach Bill Huebsch said this is a new year, a new team, and this team isn’t looking back or trying to be something else. This team is looking to create its own identity.
“You can’t compare one team to the next, so this team can’t be compared to last year,” Huebsch said. “This is a whole different team. In fact, 80 percent of the kids on this team didn’t play last year, either because they were in high school or in junior college or they were red shirting. So we’re not trying to look at last year or any of that. We’re focused on looking forward, we’re worried about now.”
The Skylights will indeed have a much different look this season, and graduation last spring made sure of that. Northern said goodbye to Frontier Conference and Region Player of the Year Abby Nicholas, as well as All-Conference performers Kelsey Williams (hitter) and Joni Nagy (setter), both of whom joined Nicholas as First-Team All-Conference standouts a year ago. Also gone is All-Conference libero, and one of the most productive defensive players Northern has had in four-year starter Holly Cartwright.
In fact, the Skylights will have to replace nearly 70 percent of its offensive and defensive production from a year ago, including Nicholas, who earned NAIA All-American honors with over 400 kills a season ago. Williams was second to Nicholas in the Frontier in kills, while Nagy led the league in assists and Cartwright was near the top of the league in digs. Haley Russell, a key senior leader and middle hitter, also graduated with one of the most successful Northern volleyball classes in school history.
But with a lot to replace, Huebsch is optimistic entering a new season. The Skylights were picked to finish fourth in the Frontier this fall, and Huebsch noted that, while there will be growing pains, his team shouldn’t be overlooked.
“This roster has a lot of talent, it’s untested, but still talented,” Huebsch said. “There are a lot of very good volleyball players on this team, and that’s become very apparent through this first two weeks of practice. We’re doing a lot of things really well right now for this early in the season. And the big thing is, this team already has very good chemistry. They are getting along on the court and off it, and that’s so important.”
The talent starts with Huebsch’s three returning starters from a year ago. Junior Dayna Jensen (5-8, OH) was a full time starter last year, racking up 239 kills and 29 service aces. Jensen also saw significant playing time as a redshirt freshman, so she’s certainly the veteran on a team that has no seniors. Also back is Jensen’s sister, Erin (5-8, OH), who will be moving around from middle to outside this season. As a freshman, she had 138 kills and 15 solo blocks, which was second-best on the Skylight team last season. Fellow sophomore Sydney Stolearcius (5-5, DS/L) is also back after making her way into the lineup as a true freshman last season. Stolearcius got to mentor under Cartwright for a year, and now, though still young, she’ll be called upon to lead Northern’s back row.
“Lil’ Syd (Stolearcius), Erin and Dayna, our three returners have come back and are looking very good,” Huebsch said. “Those three will have to lead us this season on the court, because we do have so many young and new players. But at the same time, there is a lot of talent on this team, and the young kids are already stepping up. So even though people will look at us and say we graduated five seniors and lost a ton of talent, I think this team will surprise some people. There will be some growing pains we have to go through, but the goal with this roster is to just get better every day, every match, every contact, and to just be patient. The goal is to worry about what we’re playing like in November and not so much what it’s like in August. We just have to be patient with this group, and they have to be patient with themselves.”
New and young faces do litter the Skylight roster. Red-shirt freshman Cydney Auzenne (5-10, OH) steps into the lineup this season and her talent and power is undeniable. Meanwhile, at the setter spot, a battle is going on between sophomore Janelle Hoff (5-10) and junior college transfer Jaden Lynch (5-11). Huebsch said the plan for now is to give both players plenty of time in matches and see how things shake out.
Northern is also looking to plug gaps in the middle and to do so, Huebsch will look at junior transfer Jessica Wilcox (6-0) as well as true freshman Taylor Woolman (6-1). Both players have the size the Skylights need at the net, and both have made big strides since practice began. Red-shirt freshman Carlie Haeffner (6-0), a former Butte High standout, has also been playing well in the preseason, and could see time up front for the Skylights as well.
“There have been a lot of good surprises so far,” Huebsch said. “But there’s still plenty of questions. This team is young and inexperienced for the most part, so there are going to be some mistakes, some bumps in the road. But I really like what I’ve seen in our practices and in our scrimmage. These kids are showing us some really good things, and that includes the young players and new players.
“Jessica Wilcox will have a huge impact for us right away,” he added. “And Taylor Woolman could as well, even though she’s just a freshman. In fact, several of our freshman are doing some really good things so far, and that’s really exciting to see.”
Practice is one thing, and matches are another, and Huebsch will certainly get a chance to see just what his new team is made of over the next three weeks. Before Northern opens Frontier play Sept. 11 at Lewis-Clark State, the Skylights will travel to tournaments in Spokane, Bellevue, Nebraska and Helena. At those three tournaments, MSU-N will be challenged by a bevy of teams that are ranked in the new NAIA Coaches Preseason Poll, including No. 1-ranked and defending national champion Brownsville of Texas in Helena in three weeks. Also in Helena, the Skylights will face No. 2 Concordia of California and No. 8 Biola. In Nebraska, Northern will meet up with No. 13 Dordt College, No. 7 Midland, No. 5 Northwestern of Iowa and No. 6 Grand View, while this weekend, MSU-N faces No. 21 Eastern Oregon in Spokane. That’s eight nationally-ranked teams in three weeks, and six ranked in the NAIA Top 10.
“This is without a doubt the most difficult schedule we’ve had in my six years,” Huebsch said. “But there’s a method to the madness. We loaded the schedule because we need this group to grow up and mature quickly, and there’s no better way to do that than to play really good competition on the road. We might take some lumps along the way, but this schedule will give us a chance to grow and learn and gain confidence. And by the time we get to conference play, we’ll have played so many tough teams, and seen so many different styles, maybe a really good Frontier Conference won’t look quite as daunting to this team. But either way, we’re certainly throwing this group into the fire because we’re basically playing the best-of-the-best in NAIA volleyball in the first three weeks.”
And the idea is for this Skylight team to become the best along the way. While Northern could be looked at as being in a rebuilding year, the current Skylight roster doesn’t see it that way. They want to win now, and not only continue the legacy Huebsch and company have built in recent years, but write their own history in that legacy.
With a loaded pre-conference schedule, and a Frontier slate that includes nationally-ranked RMC, perennial powerhouse LC State, Carroll College and a deep league with rising teams like Montana Tech and Westminster College, it won’t be easy for the new-look Skylights. But Huebsch has confidence that this team is up to the challenge.
“This is a very competitive group of girls, they will battle and compete every night,” Huebsch said. “We might be young and we might not have a lot of experience, but I think we will really surprise some people, because we’re talented and I like the depth we’re building with this team.
“I also think our returners want to continue and live up to the culture and the expectations we have built here,” he continued. “There is a belief in this program that we can be successful, and that group has seen it, they know what it takes to win. They know what it means to be focused and highly dedicated, and I think our younger players and our new players are learning that really quickly.
“Everybody on this roster understands that something special is happening here, and they are working hard to be a part of that in their own way. So it’s going to be interesting and exciting. I can’t really put a finger on what this team will be this season, it’s just too early, but I know it’s going to be fun, and I know they’re really excited to get the season started.”
The Skylights begin their new season Thursday through Saturday at a tournament in Spokane. Northern opens Frontier play Sept. 11 at LC State and Sept. 13 at Montana Tech. The Skylights’ first homestand of the season will feature RMC Sept. 19 and Carroll Sept. 20.
Havre Daily News/File Photo
MSU-Northern's Sydney Stolearcius digs up a ball during the 2013 Frontier Conference volleyball season last fall in Havre.
Northern Volleyball Quick Hits
Head Coach: Bill Huebsch (6th Season, 2013 Frontier and Region 9 Coach of the Year)
2013: 26-6 overall, 15-1 in Frontier, regular season conference champions, tournament runner-up. Skylights were ranked in the NAIA Top 25 for six weeks last season.
Key returnees: Dayna Jensen, Erin Jensen, Sydney Stolearcius
Key additions: Cydney Auzenne, Janelle Hoff, Jessica Wilcox, Jaden Lynch, Carlie Haeffner