(Editor’s note: Story by Griz Communications)
MISSOULA – In many ways, this week feels like a fresh start. The 2018 volleyball season is now entering its fifth week, but for Montana, each team sits at 0-0 as the Grizzlies enter the main portion of their season: Big Sky Conference play.
The team had its ups and downs during four non-conference tournaments. On one side, the Grizzlies earned three wins – two of them away from home, and all three requiring the team to grind out victories and figure out how to seal the deal late.
Against Gonzaga, Montana won the first two sets before finding itself behind in the fifth frame, 14-13. The Grizzlies scored the next three points to earn a signature victory on their home court. Most recently, Montana again was up 2-0 on South Dakota, but found itself trailing 13-10 in the fifth set. Coming out of a timeout, Montana won the next five points to enter Big Sky play with a little momentum. In between, the Grizzlies won a three-set match at UTEP, with all three sets being decided by two points.
On the flip side, Montana is 3-9. Part of that is due to scheduling – Montana played four teams that have been nationally ranked or receiving top-25 votes this season – while part was due to opportunities the Grizzlies feel they let slip away.
“There were some things we wanted to have under our belts that we don’t have quite yet – No. 1 being consistency – but with that being said, we scheduled the way we did to put ourselves in big matches,” head coach Allison Lawrence said. “Whether we got the outcome we wanted, to me, is neither here nor there at this point. It’s all about what we learned in those situations.”
The Grizzlies began to find an identity throughout the preseason, starting to solidify a lineup and understand the team’s areas of strength and needed improvement. The Grizzlies have won three of their past seven matches, and most importantly, still have their goals in front of them.
“Our main goal is to make it into the conference tournament,” Lawrence said. “Preseason is about testing and conference is where you have to make it happen, and I feel like we’re ready to do that.”
The first step toward achieving that goal begins Thursday, and unlike last year, Montana’s first three conference matches will all be at home.
While it will be nice to play in its own gym, Montana’s competition will not come easy. First up is Sacramento State, a team that went 26-10 a year ago, won the Big Sky Conference regular-season title and advanced to the NIVC postseason tournament.
The Hornets graduated a pair of all-conference performers – including the league’s MVP – but return two more, and despite a 5-9 record entering play this week, they lead the league for blocks and service aces, and have experience at key positions that will make them a challenge.
Next up is a date with Portland State on Saturday evening. The Vikings also won 20-plus games a year ago, advancing to the semifinals of the Big Sky tournament. Portland State, though, graduated some of its top players and enters its match Thursday at Montana State with a 1-11 mark, losing 11 in a row.
“The Big Sky Conference is really tight,” Lawrence said. “I love playing in the Big Sky because any night any team can win. You’re always preparing at the same level and with the same intensity for every opponent.”
Fans can attend Saturday’s match for free by showing their Griz football ticket (Montana plays Sacramento State at 1 p.m. at Washington-Grizzly Stadium). Also over the weekend, Montana is welcoming back alumnae that span back to the 1980s. They will be recognized on the court on Saturday during the Set-2 intermission.
ABOUT SACRAMENTO STATE
- Enters Thursday’s match with a 5-9 record, currently on a four-match losing skid. The Hornets have common opponents as UM with UC Riverside (3-1 win), UC Santa Barbara (3-0) and Arizona (3-1 loss).
- The Hornets lead the Big Sky for blocking (30th in NCAA) and service aces (37th).
- They have three players averaging at least 0.84 blocks per set, led by senior MB Lana Brown (1.28). Brown was a second-team all-conference player in 2017.
- Senior DS Skyler Takeda ranks 14th nationally with 0.59 service aces per set.
- Senior OH Mikaela Nocetti, a first-team all-conference selection in 2017, ranks in the top 25 nationally for attacks (12.5 per set) and points (4.19).
- Outside hitters Sarah Davis and Paige Swinney combined to set last weekend, as both setters on roster were injured.
- Sacramento State returned four starters from last year’s 26-10 squad that won a regular-season conferene title and advanced to the championship of the tournament, in addition to the NIVC postseason tournament. While the team returned two all-conference players, it also graduated a pair, including league MVP Kennedy Kurtz.
SERIES VS. THE HORNETS
Montana is 13-30 all-time against Sacramento State, including 9-13 at home. The Grizzlies have lost three in a row in the series, but dating back to 2008 are 9-6.
ABOUT PORTLAND STATE
- Portland State enters Big Sky play with a 1-11 mark, losing 11 in a row after a season-opening win over Long Beach State. Four of the losses have come to teams nationally ranked or receiving top-25 votes, and another came in five sets to Cal (Pac-12). The Vikings play at Montana State on Thursday.
- The Vikings lost 3-0 to Gonzaga, a team the Grizzlies beat in five sets on Sept. 1.
- Four returning attackers averaged at least 2.2 kills per set a year ago. However, its leading attacker is senior Jenna Mullen (122 kills, 3.05 per set), who had just 35 kills all of last year.
- PSU’s best statistical categories are blocking and digs (both ninth in Big Sky).
- PSU went 21-9 a year ago, advancing to the semifinals of the Big Sky tournament. It returns three starters from that squad, but graduated all three all-conference players, including its setter, libero, top blocker and top attacker.
SERIES VS. THE VIKINGS
Montana’s history with Portland State dates back to 1975, UM’s first season as a program. The two teams have met 74 times, with the Grizzlies going 16-58. However, they are 11-15 at home. Montana won at home in 2014 to snap a 21-match losing skid to the Vikings, and again on the road in 2015. PSU has won the past two meetings.
Of the 12 teams Montana played in the preseason, four have either been nationally ranked or have received votes in the AVCA top-25 coaches’ poll this season. The Grizzlies challenged themselves by playing two teams from the Pac-12 and another from the Big 12, but all around, their opponents had success throughout the first month of the season. The combined non-conference winning percentage of Montana’s 12 preseason opponents was .570 (81-61), with nine teams posting a .500 record or better.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM PRESEASON
- Montana earned victories over Gonzaga (3-2), UTEP (3-0) and South Dakota (3-2).
- Senior outside hitter Mykaela Hammer was named to the Montana Invitational and Borderland Invitational all-tournament teams. At the Roadrunner Classic, outside hitter Alexis Urbach and setter Ashley Watkins earned all-tournament honors.
- Montana out-blocked its opponents six times during the preseason, averaging 2.1 blocks per set. Sophomore middle blocker Baily Permann has led the Grizzlies for blocking six times.
- During a seven-match stretch from Aug. 31 through Sept. 14, Montana was out-dug just one time (in a victory at UTEP). The stretch featured three matches vs. top-30 opponents.
- Montana hit a season-best .229 in a five-set loss to New Mexico State. It marked the first time in more than a year that the Aggies, who now own a 16-match home win streak, had been pushed to five sets at home.
- The Grizzlies out-hit their opponents twice during the Borderland Invitational, holding UTEP to .150 efficiency.
- The Grizzlies recorded more service aces than their opponents in each of the final two matches of non-conference play (CSU Bakersfield and South Dakota).
- Hammer recorded 20 kills vs. New Mexico State. She has led the Grizzlies for kills a team-high five times this season.
- Junior outside hitter Missy Huddleston has recorded double-figure kill totals six times, including 24 on .333 hitting in a five-set win over Gonzaga. Trailing 14-13 in the fifth set, she had a kill and service ace to set up match point for Montana. She also has three double-doubles and has led UM in hitting percentage a team-high four times.
- Urbach had 21 kills on .390 hitting vs. CSU Bakersfield and 16 kills at a .483 clip in the season opener against UC Riverside. She has led Montana for kills four times this season.
- Watkins has four double-doubles and a team-high 12 service aces.
- Over the past four matches, freshman middle blocker Olivia Bradley is averaging 2.07 kills and 1.07 blocks per set. She has led the Grizzlies in blocking four times this season.
- True freshman Sarina Moreno has started eight matches at libero, averaging 3.71 digs per set in those matches, including a career-high 20 vs. Gonzaga. She also has six service aces.
- During the Montana Invitational, junior middle blocker Janna Grimsrud totaled 12 blocks over two matches. On the season she is averaging 1.50 blocks over 10 sets.
- Against New Mexico State, Montana used an 8-0 run to force a deciding fifth set. The Grizzlies and Aggies were tied at 13-13 in the final frame before NMSU won the final two points.
- The Grizzlies learned how to close out tight sets late at UTEP. They led 23-22 in the first set before winning two of the final three points. The two teams were knotted at 23-23 in Set 2, before Montana won the next two points. Tied at 24-24 in the third set, the Grizzlies got back-to-back kills to seal the match.
SETTING UP THE GRIZ
Setter Ashley Watkins moved into 10th place in Montana history over the weekend with more than 1,800 career assists. Making the feat even more impressive, Watkins is just a junior, and she spent her freshman season hitting during half of the team’s rotations. At her current pace, Watkins could finish her career near the top five in school history.
Montana’s busy start to conference play continues with a rare Tuesday-night match vs. Montana State. The rivalry match will be played inside Dahlberg Arena. The Grizzlies will then travel to Northern Colorado for its fourth Big Sky match in eight days.