(Editor’s note: story by Montana Sports Information)
MISSOULA – If you would have told Allison Lawrence prior to Thursday night’s match that her team would out-dig Northern Arizona, chances are, it would mean the Grizzlies upset the Lumberjacks. After all, NAU ranks sixth nationally in that category.
Montana out-dug NAU by 10 (86-76), but unfortunately for the Grizzlies, NAU is not a one-trick team. The Lumberjacks also have one of the most potent offenses (evidenced by its 54 kills, four more than UM despite the digs discrepancy) and are one of the nation’s top serving teams.
NAU recorded 11 service aces in the team’s 3-1 victory over Montana on Thursday night (21-25, 25-16, 25-22, 25-14) to remain a half-game out of first place in the Big Sky Conference standings.
“That’s one of the best serving teams in the nation,” second-year head coach Allison Lawrence said. “That’s how they get teams out of their rhythm. They bomb away, and don’t miss much. That, more than anything, felt like the biggest momentum shift.”
Montana started the match off nearly flawless, hitting .333 during a 25-21 Set-1 victory.
The set featured 10 ties, but Montana was almost always the team in control. The Lumberjacks led at just one point, when both teams were still in single digits, and after NAU tied the set at 20-20, Montana got back-to-back points to start a 5-1 run to close the set.
Alexis Urbach was in on both points that turned the tide. She had five kills and two blocks in the set.
“We scouted them well, and hitters knew what was open, and we were terminating with confidence,” Lawrence said. “More than that, though, we were taking care a lot of their tips and roll shots. That team does a really good job of keeping things in play and using their quick transition game to score points. We were able to actually have solid tip coverage and transition out and score.”
NAU responded in Set 2, however, jumping out to an 11-6 lead and limiting Montana to .091 hitting. The Grizzlies had opportunities in the third set – they led 17-16 and were within a point at 22-21 – but NAU won the critical momentum-building set, 25-22.
Set 4 was all NAU, with the Lumberjacks scoring nine consecutive points in the middle of a 13-2 run.
“That’s an insane defensive team,” Lawrence said. “As soon as they adjusted on our swings and made us hit different shots they started extending rallies, and that’s when they started winning in transition. We needed to find new ways to terminate. We did in Set 3, but then they adjusted again in the fourth set.”
Montana’s offense was paced by senior Mykaela Hammer, who had seven of her 15 kills in the final set. Urbach had 12 kills and three blocks, while Baily Permann had a team-most four stuffs. Maddy Marshall and Sarina Moreno each had 20 digs, two of five Grizzlies in double figures in that category. The team’s 86 digs were a season high; Montana’s previous high during a four-set match was 56 – 30 fewer than Thursday night.
NAU’s top two hitters, though, combined for 28 kills on .410 efficiency, not to mention the team’s 11 service aces.
Montana will now prepare for Southern Utah, a match that has major conference tournament implications. The Thunderbirds rallied from an 0-2 hole to defeat Montana State on Thursday night. The Grizzlies and Bobcats are tied for seventh place at 5-8, while Portland State and Southern Utah are two matches back at 3-10.
Additionally, Saturday is Senior Night, and Montana will recognize six players prior to first serve. Fans can get in free by bringing five canned-food items.
“The best teams can show up to the gym and respond to whatever happened last, and play in that moment,” Lawrence said. “I love how we’re responding, and this is such an emotional weekend for us. They’ve never wanted it more than they’ve wanted it this weekend, and that’s exactly how it should be.”