Volleyball swats aside Eastern Washington
GREELEY -- Northern Colorado volleyball took another step toward a first Big Sky Conference regular-season title Thursday night with a low-drama, three-game victory over Eastern Washington at Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion.
Senior Ashley Lichtenberg sizzled with 14 kills on .429 hitting, and senior Julie Stephenson led the way defensively with 17 kills as the Bears won a school Division I-record 22nd game this season (22-5, 13-1 Big Sky) and improved to 14-1 in their last 15 home conference matches.
Northern Colorado hit .315 through the first two games against the Eagles (7-17, 6-8) and kept the pressure on in game three to come out on top 25-20, 25-15, 25-20.
"Our passers were passing great," Lichtenberg said. "Marissa was putting up great sets, and our other hitters were doing well against their block. It was great (getting going early on). That gave us a lot of confidence going into Saturday, and we're on our homecourt again, so that's definitely an advantage for us. We've just got to go ahead and step up."
The Saturday Lichtenberg speaks of is this Saturday, when second-place Portland State will come to Greeley. The Viks, who defeated the Bears earlier this season in Portland, won at Northern Arizona on Thursday night and remain a match behind Northern Colorado with two regular-season matches left on both teams' schedules.
The Bears and the Viks victories Thursday makes everything simple. If Northern Colorado wins Saturday night, it will cap off the Big Sky's 2010 regular-season chase and host next year's Big Sky Championship.
Still, Benson said she and her players weren't thinking of that heading into Thursday night. The Eagles are, after all, the only Big Sky team in the last two seasons to leave Butler-Hancock with a "W."
"We haven't talked about Portland State at all yet," Benson said. "Certainly as coaches we've scouted them and prepared somewhat, but we haven't talked about them at practice and we haven't talked about a conference championship. The girls knew this was a big weekend for us, but that's about it.
"We focused all week on preparing for Eastern Washington and wanted to play a good match. That will be preparation enough and should have us ready to go into Saturday against Portland State."
The Bears rolled out to a 23-13 lead in game one Thursday before letting the Eagles pull back into the game at 23-19.
Sophomore Kelley Arnold had kills on two of the next three points, though -- including an emphatic slam to end the game -- to get Northern Colorado off on the right foot. The Bears then earned sideouts on 13 of 15 chances (86 percent) in game two to take a 2-0 lead into intermission.
Northern Colorado entered the match 11-0 this season when winning its first two games this year. That mark moved to 12-0 with an impressive defensive performance in game three. The Bears hit just .047 in the win but had 16 digs and five of their seven blocks.
"I think we're playing with a lot of confidence right now but very controlled confidence, where it's not very emotional," Benson said. "It's just a very business-like approach to the matches, so, I think that's the right mind-set going into Saturday.
"We're in a position to do something special on Saturday night, but we're not going to make it bigger than it is. That's only half our goal, anyway. The tournament championship is two weeks around the corner, and we have to be ready for that. Saturday night is not the ultimate (goal) anyway."