Bears showcase Big Sky gap in Bobcats beatdown
GREELEY -- The difference between Northern Colorado Volleyball and some of the other programs in the Big Sky Conference is becoming more and more obvious.
Take Saturday night's 3-0 win against Montana State, for example.
The Bears absolutely unleashed on the Bobcats in the first set and let up only a little the rest of the way en route to a second consecutive conference sweep win at Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion.
Northern Colorado (8-4, 2-0 Big Sky), 3-0 winners against Montana on Thursday night, ran their set-winning streak to nine and 12-1 in the last week with a 25-9, 25-23, 25-23 victory against the Bobcats.
The Bears, who increased their winning streak against a struggling Montana State squad (0-12, 0-2) to 11, hit a remarkable .452 in the first set, with 15 kills and just one error coming on 31 swings.
That, paired with 18 digs, four blocks and two services aces to start the night, set the tone for a match in which Northern Colorado coach Lyndsey Benson got to play around with lineups and take advantage of teaching moments, like when she and frontline setter Marissa Hughes spent the whole second set sitting together on the bench, chatting and dissecting Montana State's approach.
None of that is unprecedented, of course, but the fact that Benson got to do it Saturday night during a conference match speaks volumes as to exactly what's brewing within the volleyball locker room inside Butler-Hancock Athletic Center.
Benson has a goal for her program this season (and every season from here on out) to finish the year in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25 poll and advance to, at least, the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Whether they get there or not remains to be seen, but Benson knows her Bears are as close as ever to topping that plateau.
"(Montana State) made us play a little bit uncomfortable, but I think our different lineups challenged that, too," Benson said. "So, that's what we needed at this point. All week our theme -- and it's going to be our theme for the rest of the season -- has been that we've got to be playing well enough to beat a (AVCA) top-20 team. I don't know that we were at that level tonight, but I thought trying some different lineups is getting us closer to that goal."
Freshman Tambre Haddock led all players Saturday night with nine kills, and she did it on .400 hitting while also getting to a career-high nine digs.
Freshman Andrea Spaustat and junior Brittany Crenshaw followed up with seven kills apiece, and they hit .385 and .364 respectively. Junior Kelley Arnold, the Bears' and one of the Big Sky Conference's best players, finished with just five kills, as did sophomore Alyssa Wilson.
No matter to Benson, though, who relished the opportunity to give some of her talented but less-relied upon players some added responsibility.
"If Kelley Arnold goes down with an injury, we've still got to beat a top-20 team," Benson said. "If Marissa Hughes is out, we've still got to beat a top-20 team. We have those expectations, and we don't want to be dependent on one player. So, we did mix around a few different lineups (tonight).
"We put a bigger load on Tambre Haddock, and I thought she stepped up and did a good job. To play that much, to play back row … she had a big load on her shoulders -- normally a load that we rest on Bre Williams, a four-year kid, a senior. So, as we rest Bre Williams, we're putting a freshman in that big (of) a role, (and) she handled it well, for the most part."
At first, the contrast was evident between the Bears' first-set performance and its play in the early stages of the second set, in which the Bobcats actually led 20-17, prompting Benson into a timeout.
Crenshaw responded with an immediate kill out of the break, and Wilson followed with another to pull Northern Colorado within one, at 20-19. Natlie Laband stalled the momentum with a service error, but Crenshaw had her back with kills on the next two points to tie the set and sink the Bobcats slight uptick in momentum.
Following the second-set win, Northern Colorado took a 17-10 lead in set three and then held on and then rallied after Montana State came all the way back to take a 21-20 lead.
The Bears never seemed in danger of not winning Saturday's match, but there were definitely some moments probably a little harrier than Benson would have liked.
She has to have liked the end result, though.
And she and her players have to be feeling good about themselves as they prepare to embark on a three-match road swing to continue Big Sky Conference play -- at Sacramento State, Eastern Washington and defending Big Sky NCAA-participant Portland State.
"I thought we were pretty efficient, offensively, especially in games one and two," Benson said. "We were low error and terminating when we had the chance. We lost that a little bit in game three, but we had a pretty good night offensively."
Added senior Amanda Arterburn, who finished with 15 digs: "Being home was a good advantage to start off the conference season. Playing Montana and Montana State … they are good competition at the beginning of the season, and it was good to face them going into this weekend and the next weekend being on the road."