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Spiked: Skylights bury Saints

Montana State University-Northern senior Hillary Isleifson (left) smashes a ball at the Carroll College defense during the Skylights' home opener against the Saints Saturday night in Havre. Northern took down the nationally-ranked Saints in four sets, and christened the currently being remodeled Armory Gymnasium with the first victory on the gym's new floor.

Northern players dive for a dig suring Saturday night's historic win over Carroll College in Havre.

MSU-Northern players celebrate a point during Saturday night's Frontier Conference volleyball match at the Armory Gymnasium in Havre.

In four years as head under Bill Huebsch, the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team has steadily come back to life as a program.

On Saturday night at the Armory Gymnasium, the Skylights took that improving to a whole new level.

Northern, in front of a raucous beach party theme crowd, opened its home and Frontier Conference schedule with a resounding four-set win over the No. 15 Carroll College Fighting Saints. The Skylights beat the Saints by scores of 23-25, 25-19, 25-13 and 25-18, and after a nip-and-tuck first set, the match wasn't even as close as the scoreboard read.

"This is amazing," MSU-N junior libero Holly Cartwright said after racking up a match-high 35 digs. "I've been here three years now, and coach Huebsch is here in his fourth year, and we'd never beaten Carroll before. They (Saints) are nationally-ranked so we made some history tonight. It's was awesome.

"I'm just really happy for these girls," Huebsch added. "They deserved this one tonight. They've worked really hard, we pushed ourselves in the preseason against a really tough schedule and this team has really bonded and grown together. And all of that paid off tonight. There are so many pluses about this win, I can't really put them all into words. I'm just really proud and happy for these girls."

And the Skylights did go out and earn their first win over Carroll in many years.

Northern battled hard in the first set, though the Saints opened up a four-point lead midway through with some tremendous blocking. But a Kelsey Williams aced and a Hillary Isleifson kill staved off two Carroll set points before Kathleen Mulligan finally gave the Saints a 1-0 lead on a kill up the right sideline.

"I told the girls, we didn't play poorly at all in that first set," Huebsch said. "It was just a matter of cleaning up a few things. Going into this match, we said we needed to win the serve-receive battle and break them down with our serve, instead of getting broken by theirs. And finally, we had to be consistent on defense and control the tempo with our blocking. I think we didn't do those things as well as we wanted to in the first set, but after that, I thought we relaxed, got more into the flow of the match, and from there we executed everything very well. We just seemed to get better and better as the match went on."

Better and better is putting it mildly.

In the second set, there were 11 ties and 11 lead changes, but the Skylights were rolling on offense, and it was just a matter of time before they broke through. And that breakthrough came on an Isleifson kill which gave Northern an 19-18 lead. From there, she and Haley Russell combined for six more kills, and Russell's bomb out of the middle knotted the match up at 1-1.

And while the first and second sets were close, the last two weren't. Northern ripped off a 6-0 run to lead 15-9 in the third, then two straight Victoria Polo kills capped an 11-1 run and an easy third-set victory.

Nothing much changed in the fourth as the Skylights took the lead at 5-4 and never trailed

again. Abby Nicholas came up with two big kills midway through the set and Kelsey Williams, a Helena native finished it off with a block at 23-17 and thunderous kills to score the 24th and 2th points of the set.

"I think we came out with some nerves, we were excited to be playing at home, maybe a little too excited," Cartwright said. "But once we calmed down and played more relaxed, we really showed what we can do. This team really played together tonight and it's so exciting to play like that. It was awesome.

"I'm just really proud of the way the kids were patient and executed what we wanted to do," Huebsch said. "We served the ball really well, we passed it well, we counter-attacked them very well, and as a result, we got into a pretty great rhythm offensively. We were getting the swings we wanted and we were pretty consistent on defense.

"The girls did a great job tonight," he continued. "And you can't go through and single out any one performance. Everybody on the floor stepped up and did multiple things to contribute to this win."

Northern didn't just dominate on the scoreboard, the Skylights also filled out the stat sheet. Isleifson totaled 16 kills and 12 digs, Williams had 12 kills and 14 digs and Nicholas chipped in with 11 kills as the Skylights out hit Carroll and racked up 57 kills to the Saints' 34. Northern also served well, totaling nine aces, including three from the powerful jump serve of Joni Nagy, who also totaled 24 assists and eight kills. Shayla Bly had a big match passing as well. She came off the bench to give the Skylights a team-high 26 assists. Defense was stellar too, with Cartwright leading the way in the back row as MSU-N racked up a ridiculous 99 digs. Nagy had 16 of those as well. Nicholas and Isleifson also had four of Northern's solid seven blocks on the night.

And what a night it was. Northern christened the brand new floor and one new set of bleachers in the Armory with one of its biggest wins in the last 10 years. The Skylights also got off to a 1-0 start in conference play and gave the fans who brought lawn chairs to watch the Skylights during a beach party theme a taste of what this season holds for MSU-N volleyball.

"I's just elated," Huebsch said. "And so proud of these girls. They really played well, they've worked so hard this year and they deserved this night.

"This was an exciting win for the program," he added. "And it was against a very quality opponent. Carroll is a very good team. So I'm just really happy for these girls tonight. It was a special night."

The Skylights (1-0, 7-8) will be back in the Armory Gymnasium this Friday to take on another Frontier powerhouse in Rocky Mountain College. MSU-N also hosts new league member Dickinson State on Saturday night.

MSU-Northern def. Carroll

23-25, 25-19, 25-13 25-18

CC – Kills 34 (Kathleen Mulligan 6, Ellie Graff 5, Demi Belshe 5), Assists 33 (Natalie Stewart 15), Aces 6 (Six with one each), Digs 93 (Catie Hanser 24), Blocks 11 (Graff 4).

MSU-N – Kills 57 (Hillary Isleifson 16, Kelsey Williams 12, Abby Nicholas 11), Assists (Shayla Bly 26, Joni Nagy 24), Aces 8 (Nagy 3, Williams 2, Nicholas 2), Digs 99 (Holly Cartwright 35), Blocks 7 (Nicholas 2, Isleifson 2).

MSU-Northern's Joni Nagy (left) sets a ball during the Skylights' resounding win over Carroll College Saturday night in Havre.


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