(Editor’s note: story by Montana Sports Information)
CEDAR CITY, Utah – Montana found itself trailing 2-0 on the road Thursday evening, needing someone to step up and rally the Grizzlies to victory over Southern Utah. Enter veteran outside hitter Mykaela Hammer.
The senior had eight kills in the fifth set alone, helping Montana cap off the come-from-behind road win (16-25, 24-26, 25-23, 25-23, 15-13).
Montana trailed early in the deciding frame, but Hammer responded with back-to-back kills to knot the score at 2-2. Moments later, she recorded another kill to give Montana a 4-3 lead it would not relinquish. In total, Hammer had five of Montana’s first six points and eight kills overall in the set, including the final point.
The Grizzlies led 14-11, but the Thunderbirds rallied for the next two points to cut the score to 14-13. Following a Montana timeout, Hammer put the final ball to the floor.
“That kind of performance needs to happen from a fifth-year senior,” head coach Allison Lawrence said. “That’s her role, that’s her job and she carried us at that crucial time.”
With the win, Montana improved to 4-1 to begin Big Sky Conference play, something that hasn’t been accomplished since 2006. The Grizzlies (7-10 overall) have already surpassed last year’s conference win total.
While Hammer was dominant in the fifth set, fellow senior outside hitter Cassie Laramee also had a big night, tallying a career-high-tying 18 kills. She had two kills in the fifth set and was even bigger in the fourth frame, recording five kills, a service ace and a block. Her block gave Montana its first lead of the set, at 16-15, and while the Grizzlies never trailed from that point forward, SUU turned a 23-20 deficit into a 23-23 tie. Following a timeout, Laramee thwarted the rally with a kill.
“Cassie was reliable down the stretch,” Lawrence said. “Both she and Myk took it upon themselves to change their choices and try different swings. Both have nice, high hand swings, and when they became confident with their feet, they started doing some nice things.”
Hammer and Laramee’s kills wouldn’t have been possible without stellar back-row defense from true freshman Sarina Moreno. The libero recorded 32 digs on the evening, a career high by 11 digs. Montana’s record book tracks the top five single-match dig performances, and Moreno’s total was four shy of reaching that plateau.
“As soon as we got through the first set we made some adjustments to her positioning,” Lawrence said. “From there on out, she read the ball well and the same thing never beat her twice. No. 10 (Janet Kalaniuvalu) was unstoppable in a way, but Sarina really slowed her down.”
In total, Montana out-dug SUU by 13.
While the finish was thrilling, Montana struggled to get going offensively early, hitting .059 in the opening frame and losing by a score of 25-16; the Thunderbirds hit .448. After falling behind 2-0, Montana’s outside hitters were hitting a mere .097, in large part due to errors. Montana made 51 errors on the night – the equivalent of more than two full sets.
The Grizzlies know they have things to clean up, but they can breathe easy knowing they prevailed in another five-set match. The Grizzlies are now 5-2 in five-set matches this season, winning four in a row. Thursday marked the first time doing so in a true road environment.
“We made way too many errors, so we absolutely need to figure some of those things out and clean things up, but I’m happy that we fought through some ugly play to win,” Lawrence said. “Southern Utah played extremely well, and it was really tough to beat them in their house.
“We didn’t play great, but we had a belief and remained resilient. So much of that is not only the resilience of our players, but the work of our larger staff. Dana (Cranston) and G (Giedre Tarnauskaite) make adjustments each set that are crucial, and I have to give a shoutout to Brandon Ronan (strength & conditioning coach). He keeps us jumping and playing at a high level, and we feel like we can outlast teams because of the work he puts in with our team in the weight room.”
After dropping the opening set, 25-16, Montana fell behind 7-1 in Set 2. The Grizzlies would battle back to take a 16-15 lead, and after falling behind again, used a 6-0 run to hold a 23-22 advantage.
“Janna (Grimsrud) gave us a lot of momentum,” Lawrence said of the junior middle blocker. “We didn’t win the second set, but when she came in, she sparked us a little bit and had moments that made their hitters think. I was happy to see her execute on blocking and be aggressive offensively.”
Grimsrud, who hadn’t played in a match since Sept. 7, finished with two kills and two blocks. After nearly winning the second set, Montana held on to win sets 3 and 4 by scores of 25-23. The Grizzlies led the third set by as many as eight points – 23-15 – before SUU staged a comeback attempt. The fourth set saw ties at 10 straight points, but the Grizzlies used an 8-3 run midway through to create separation.
Montana will now bus to Flagstaff to take on Northern Arizona on Saturday evening. The Lumberjacks are 3-2 to begin conference following Thursday’s sweep over Montana State. During non-conference play, NAU upset No. 8 Florida.