(Editor’s note: story by Montana Sports Information)
RIVERSIDE, CA – Montana opened the 2018 volleyball season with a 3-1 loss at UC Riverside on Friday afternoon (25-23, 21-25, 25-20, 25-16). The end result wasn’t what Montana had envisioned, but there were still plenty of positives that came away from the opener.
Senior Alexis Urbach, who began her collegiate career playing for UC Riverside, returned to her old gym with a major performance, leading the Grizzlies with 16 kills on .483 hitting, in addition to two blocks and a service ace.
Urbach, slowed by injuries much of last season, was limited to just 31 kills, seven blocks and an ace throughout the entirety of 2017. Adding her to an offense that includes sophomore Maddy Marshall (14 kills on Friday) and senior Mykaela Hammer (10 kills) would be a huge boost for the Grizzlies.
“To see her perform the way she did, and be as aggressive as she was, it was awesome to see,” second-year head coach Allison Lawrence said. “When Lex is locked in and feeling really confident, she is a force to be reckoned with.”
Urbach has always been a strong attacker, but Lawrence particularly has been impressed by the way the outside hitter has improved her all-around game.
“She’s really had to fight her way back, getting healthy and getting back onto the court,” Lawrence said. “She’s added so much to her defense and her serve receive, and she’s a completely different player from where she was last year. She came up with a huge block that was a big momentum shift in our favor.”
Aside from a couple big runs, Montana hung with and even out-played the Highlanders for much of the match. Case in point, the Grizzlies held a 10-8 lead in Set 3, before a 10-2 run pushed the momentum in Riverside’s direction. It was much of the same in the final set, as an 11-0 run flipped an 8-5 Montana advantage into an insurmountable 16-8 deficit.
“I think the most frustrating part was that we would work so hard – doing incredible things and playing really smart and sticking to the scouting report – in order to create momentum, and then we’d go back and miss a serve,” Lawrence said. “I thought more than anything, we ended our own momentum rather than them taking it from us.”
Even in the first set, which Montana dropped by a score of 25-23, the Grizzlies were the aggressor, like the game plan Lawrence had drawn up this week. Montana jumped out to a 3-0 lead early and led for much of the frame. In fact, Montana was the first to 20 points and led for 29 total points overall compared to just 13 for UC Riverside, but the Highlanders were able to close the set and gain the early edge.
The turning point in the set came midway through when an Urbach ace gave the Grizzlies a 15-12 lead. UC Riverside, having allowed three consecutive points, called timeout, but when the teams returned to the court, the officials changed Urbach’s ace to a rotation error, turning Montana’s three-point lead into a one-point advantage.
In the second set, a 25-21 victory, the Grizzlies never trailed. After alternating the set’s first nine points, Montana earned back-to-back points on a Highlander ball-handling error and a Silerolia Gaogao ace, and the Grizzlies pushed the tempo from there, gradually increasing their advantage. In the set, Urbach had six kills, an ace and a block.
“It was a balanced match and a great fight and a great way to start our season,” Lawrence said. “There were so many moments where we were so much more physical than them, we were very organized, we were hitting our assignments… Overall, we played really disciplined, high-level volleyball.”
Montana’s three outside hitters – Hammer, Marshall and Urbach – accounted for more than 80 percent of Montana’s offense on Friday. McKenzie Kramer (three kills), Olivia Bradley (three) and Baily Permann (one) were the only other attackers to record a kill. A bigger issue on Friday, though, was stopping UC Riverside’s Kaiulani Ahuna, who recorded a school-record 30 kills on .462 hitting. She alone accounted for more than half of her team’s kills, also adding 14 digs.
“It was amazing to see how she carried her team,” Lawrence said. “She was out-of-control good. She kept us on our heels and made big plays when they needed her.”
Montana doesn’t have to linger long on this loss. The Grizzlies will be back on the court twice tomorrow, first vs. Cal State Fullerton at noon MT, then again vs. Akron at 6 p.m. Both matches can be livestreamed for free.
• In her collegiate debut, Bradley had three kills on four swings, in addition to two blocks. She did so in just 1.5 sets, entering for the first time late in the third set before starting the fourth.
• Hammer and Permann led Montana with three blocks apiece. Overall, the Grizzlies out-blocked the Highlanders, 8.0-7.0.
• Gaogao had 20 digs (and a kill in the fourth set!). She recorded at least 20 digs four times last year, including twice in non-five-set matches. Junior Missy Huddleston had 10 digs, while setter Ashley Watkins had eight, in addition to 43 assists.
• Urbach’s .483 hitting percentage was a career best.
• Kramer’s 14 attacks were a career high.