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Pair of nationally ranked teams highlight Griz 2018 volleyball schedule

Posted at 4:53 PM, May 04, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 15:45:51-04

(Editor’s note: University of Montana media release)

MISSOULA, Mont. – A variety of factors prevented Montana from hosting a preseason volleyball tournament in 2017, forcing the Grizzlies to play their first 15 matches away from Missoula. It wasn’t until Week 6 of the season that Montana finally got to play in its own gym, something it only got to do eight times overall.

Head coach Allison Lawrence knew she didn’t want her team to have to suffer through a stretch like that again, so she made a point to bring a home tournament back to Missoula – both for her team and the Griz community.

Lawrence delivered, not only with the tournament, but with high-level competition. Over Labor Day weekend, the Grizzlies will host Iowa State, Gonzaga and Utah in a two-day, round-robin tournament.

“This home tournament is so special in and of itself, but so important for our fans and for our players to play in front of their home crowd before we start conference,” Lawrence said.

Utah, of the Pac-12, won 24 matches a year ago and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Iowa State, of the Big 12, also was a 20-win team, advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Both teams finished the 2017 season nationally ranked by the AVCA, in addition to final RPIs of 10 (Utah) and 16 (Iowa State). Gonzaga went 14-16 in 2017.

The match vs. the Cyclones was a return trip from when Montana traveled to Ames in 2016, and from there, Lawrence was able to attract other high-profile teams.

“I wanted to build a tournament that would be really exciting to watch, with really physical volleyball,” the second-year head coach said. “I think fans in this region need to see that more. For us to measure ourselves against the best, in front of our home crowd . . . what could be better than that?

The home tournament will highlight the fall slate, but competitive opponents are sprinkled throughout the four weeks of preseason play.

The season will begin Aug. 24 with a tournament in the Golden State. Co-hosted by UC Riverside and Cal State Fullerton, Montana will play both Big West schools, in addition to Akron. All three teams had sub-.500 records in 2017.

The second week of the season will feature Montana’s home tournament (Aug. 31-Sept. 1), which will be played in Dahlberg Arena. The Grizzlies will play Iowa State and Utah on Friday before hosting Gonzaga on Saturday – the same day as football’s season opener. Soccer is also hosting a home tournament that weekend.

“Everybody will be in town and this place will be rocking,” Lawrence said. “I can’t wait to see what that brings into the gym for us.”

Montana’s final two weekends of non-conference action will again feature stiff competition.

Traveling south (Sept. 7-8), Montana will face tournament co-hosts New Mexico State and UTEP after a neutral-site match vs. Arizona. The Wildcats placed 10th in the competitive Pac-12, beating a pair of nationally ranked conference foes in 2017. They have played in 19 of the past 26 NCAA tournaments under head coach Daniel Rubio.

New Mexico State has historically been the class of the WAC, winning the regular-season title three years in a row, including during last year’s 21-win campaign that featured a 13-2 home record. Montana and UTEP met in last year’s season opener, a 3-1 Griz win. The Miners went 6-22 in 2017.

Montana’s preseason schedule will conclude where it started – back in California (Sept. 14-15). The Grizzlies will face host CSU Bakersfield, South Dakota and UC Santa Barbara.

As the No. 4 seed, CSU Bakersfield ran through the 2017 WAC tournament, upsetting New Mexico State in the semis before winning the tournament championship and advancing to the NCAA tournament. South Dakota has posted winning records in four of the past five years, earning 17 victories in 2017. UCSB went 8-20 a year ago.

“Our goal was to find some teams that would challenge us and prepare us for conference play, but also games that we thought we could have some success in,” Lawrence said.

Montana’s 18-match Big Sky slate will begin Sept. 20 in Missoula. The Grizzlies will play their first three league matches at home, including a Sept. 25 date vs. rival Montana State.

With North Dakota no longer in the league, each team will play nine home matches and nine on the road. The Grizzlies will play every team twice except for Weber State (only home) and Idaho State (only away), something pleasing to Lawrence.

“I think that’s a big benefit for each team,” she said. “It’s more of an even playing field.”

A year ago, with the Fighting Hawks in the league, there were four teams each school only faced once.

Following a three-win improvement from 2016 to 2017, and after returning every player who made a start in 2017, the Grizzlies have a goal of making it back to the conference tournament for the first time since 2013. The postseason tournament will be held Nov. 21-24 in the gym of the regular-season champion.

“The progress we made from August to November last year, and then the growth we’ve seen since the season ended in November, gives us a lot of optimism and excitement,” Lawrence said. “I like where our team is at.”

Additional Notes:

  • Of Montana’s 12 non-conference opponents, six had winning records in 2017, with three advancing to the NCAA tournament (CSU Bakersfield, Iowa State and Utah).
  • UTEP is the only non-conference opponent the Grizzlies played a year ago. In the season opener, Montana earned a 3-1 win in Lawrence’s first match as head coach.
  • UC Santa Barbara is the only opponent the Grizzlies have yet to play. However, Montana hasn’t played Arizona (1991), CSU Bakersfield (1991) or Akron (1995) since before its current roster was born.
  • Montana is 49-38 all-time against its non-conference opponents, holding winning records over Arizona (1-0), Gonzaga (28-16), Iowa State (3-2), UC Riverside (2-0) and UTEP (3-0). Additionally, the Grizzlies are 8-9 vs. Utah, winning seven of the past eight meetings.
  • After a one-year hiatus, Montana and Gonzaga will resume their rivalry. The two Northwest schools have played at least once in 33 of the past 40 seasons.