(MSUB Athletics photo)

(MSUB Athletics release)

BILLINGS – The Great Northwest Athletic Conference season will begin on Friday for Montana State University Billings volleyball (4-4) as the Yellowjackets will light up Alterowitz Gymnasium for a 7 p.m. match against the University of Alaska Nanooks (7-3, 0-1 GNAC).  On Saturday, the ‘Jackets will welcome the No. 18 University of Alaska Seawolves (5-4, 1-0 GNAC). The Seawolves swept the Nanooks on Tuesday 25-21, 25-19, 25-22 in Fairbanks, Alaska.

LAST TIME OUT: The ‘Jackets finished their tournament season last weekend with four games at the DII West Region Showcase is Lacey, Wash. For the second straight weekend MSUB split their matches by picking up a pair of 3-0 wins and a couple 3-0 losses.

The Yellowjackets started the weekend on the right note with a straight-sets victory over the Sea Lions from Point Loma Nazarene. Maddi Vigil recorded season-highs in hitting percentage .485 and kills, 17, in the win over Point Loma while fellow freshman Hali Ehresmann delivered 6 kills with a .600 hitting percentage.

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On Friday, MSUB was handed two losses to Cal State University, Dominguez Hills and Notre Dame De Namur. In the match against Dominguez Hills, the ‘Jackets controlled the early action in both the first and second set managing to pull ahead by five points in each frame. However, the Toros rebounded to close out MSUB on both occasions and earned a convincing decision in the third set. Against the Argonauts of Notre Dame De Namur the Yellowjackets faltered early and never recovered.

Saturday brought redemption and the opportunity to build confidence before the start of conference play for the young ‘Jackets. In its match against Humboldt State University, MSUB recorded a .263 hitting percentage as a team while holding the Lumberjacks to a .147 hitting percentage. In the second set the Yellowjackets delivered their largest margin of victory in any set this season with the 25-11 decision.

NUMBERS AND NOTES

A SET UP: MSUB has won the first set five times this season and converted those matches into a 4-1 record when winning the opening frame. They have a team best plus-15 point-differential in the opening set. Their only loss after taking the first frame came in five sets against Minnesota State University Moorhead in the first match of the season, the only MSUB match not decided in straight-sets this season.

ZEL-OUS DEFENSE: Freshman Izela Alvarez leads the GNAC in digs per set this season and her 5.38 average ranks 42nd nationally. With 140 digs through eight games, Alvarez is on pace to be the second player in program history to finish with 500+ digs in a season. The current program record for digs in a season is 577 set by Erin Compton in 2012. The Dumas, Texas native has also been effective with her serve this season as she leads the ‘Jackets with 12 service aces, which ranks third in the GNAC.

 

Alvarez, who her teammates call ‘Zel’, caught up Steen Fredrickson in this week’s Sideline Scoop.

A FRESH OFFENSE: Led by freshmen Vigil, Bayli Monck and Kylee Clarke the Yellowjacket offense has made significant improvement over last season’s numbers. In 2016 MSUB finished with a hitting percentage of .171 with 12.17 kills per set. This season, the ‘Jackets have completed eight games with a hitting percentage of .212 while averaging 12.46 kills per set. Vigil leads all Yellowjacket attackers with 95 kills while Monck has a team-leading .287 hitting percentage. Clarke has proven to be a solid setter with 10 assist per set which ranks fourth in the GNAC. A fourth freshman, Ehresmann, has started to find her groove in the MSUB attack and recorded her second 10-kill game in Saturday’s win over Humboldt State.

DOUBLE-DOUBLE FEATURE: The Yellowjackets recorded three double-doubles in their win against Point Loma Nazarene last Friday. All eight of MSUB’s double-doubles this season have come from freshmen Vigil, Clarke and Monck. Vigil leads the ‘Jackets with four followed by Clarke with three and Monck with one. Vigil and Monck have combined kills and digs for the feat while Clarke’s double-doubles have consisted of assists and digs. You can learn more about Clarke and her world championship background in this week’s New Faces feature.

GNAC PACK: Northwest Nazarene (9-0, 1-0 GNAC) currently sits at the top of the conference having beat eleventh-place Simon Fraser (3-6, 0-1 GNAC) in their only conference match so far this season. Tuesday’s match between Alaska and Alaska Anchorage is the only other GNAC match to be played thus far. UAA is in second place while Alaska is currently 10th. The ‘Jackets sit in ninth place before conference competition.

OPPONENT PREVIEW

UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA NANOOKS: The Yellowjackets took both matches over the Nanooks in the 2016 season with MSUB winning in straight-sets in Billings. Miranda McConnell led the ‘Jackets with 10 kills and a .588 hitting percentage when the Nanooks visited Alterowitz Gym last Sept. MSUB stifled the Alaska attack as the Nanooks recorded .074 hitting percentage for the entire match.

Last season the Nanooks finished in eleventh place in the GNAC with a record of 3-24 while going 2-18 in conference.

This season has been a different story for Alaska, the Nanooks have had big contributions from sophomore Gabby Lerman and freshman Lahra Weber on the offensive side of the ball. Lerma leads the team with 85 kills and ranks 12th in the GNAC with 2.83 kills per set while Weber’s 73 kills rank second for the Nanooks. Freshman Cate Whiting leads the GNAC in service aces with 15.

Senior Riley Podowicz leads the Alaska defense with 17 blocks including three solos. Sophomore libero Jenna Hickel is third in the GNAC with 4.97 digs per set and 154 total digs this season.

Brian Scott is in his first season as the head coach in Fairbanks, Alaska, he was previously an assistant at his alma mater Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.

No. 18 UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA ANCHORAGE SEAWOLVES: MSUB fell in its two matches against UAA in 2016 with both losses coming in straight-sets. The Seawolves finished the season with a 34-3 record while going 19-1 in the GNAC on their way to making it to the national championship match against Concordia – St. Paul where they lost 3-0.

Alaska Anchorage has already surpassed their loss total from all of last season after starting the year 5-4. The No. 18 Seawolves bring back two of their top attackers from last season with Leah Swiss and Chrisalyn Johnson. Swiss is the top attacker on the team with 95 kills with Johnson close behind with 93.

 

Tara Melton leads Anchorage with 38 blocks at a 1.23 per set clip, good enough for third in the GNAC. Diana Fa’amausili is the top returning blocker for the Seawolves and has stopped 35 attacks this season. Senior Keala Kaio-Perez tops the team with 133 digs.

 

Anchorage is coached by ninth-year head coach Chris Green. Green was named the AVCA National Coach of the Year in 2016 after leading the Seawolves to their second consecutive GNAC title. Under his leadership UAA has seven NCAA tournament appearances and a 193-72 record with one championship appearance.

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