(Editor’s note: University of Montana athletics release)
MISSOULA — The Montana volleyball team announced its 2019 schedule on Friday afternoon, featuring 11 home matches.
Montana’s preseason schedule includes four non-conference tournaments, highlighted by its home tournament Sept. 13-14. After going four seasons without a home tournament, the Grizzlies will host one for the second season in a row in 2019. On Friday, Sept. 13, the Grizzlies will welcome CSU Bakersfield, before playing UTEP the following afternoon. Montana State is also part of the four-team tournament, but the Grizzlies and Bobcats will wait another 10 days to play, when the two rivals open Big Sky Conference play against one another.
“It’s always a major goal each year to host a tournament, so we’re excited to bring in Bakersfield and UTEP, as well as Montana State,” head coach Allison Lawrence said. “We want to play at home because we feel like it’s advantageous for us as a team, but we also want the Missoula community to experience more teams and more great volleyball.”
Montana’s season begins on Friday, Aug. 30, with a double-header against UC Davis and Pacific, in Davis, California. The following day, the Grizzlies will play their third California team of the weekend, when they face San Jose State for the second time in three seasons.
The Grizzlies will travel to Gonzaga during Week 2, a return trip from when the Bulldogs came to Missoula a year ago. Facing match point at 14-13 in the fifth set, Montana rallied to defeat Gonzaga in thrilling fashion. In Spokane, Montana will play the host Bulldogs, Ball State and Grand Canyon University.
“Going to Gonzaga feels closer to home than a lot of places, so we’re excited to go there,” Lawrence said. “Senior Missy Huddleston is from nearby Coeur d’Alene, and a lot of our recruits and much of the Griz fan base is in that area, so it will be a fun weekend.”
The team’s final preseason weekend will be in the state of Colorado, playing Air Force, Denver and Santa Clara in a tournament co-hosted by the Falcons and Pioneers.
Montana’s Big Sky slate kicks off in a big way, by hosting Montana State in the annual Brawl of the Wild. A year ago in Missoula, Montana overcame a 2-1 deficit to beat the Bobcats in front of more than 1,500 fans.
“Preseason has a lot of ups and downs and is a lot of learning about yourself,” Lawrence said. “By playing the Cats first, it feels like there’s a little bit more urgency to the first month of the season. It forces us to feel like we need to be in top form for the first conference game, which I like. I love that we get to open Big Sky against them, and get to do it at home.”
Overall, three of Montana’s first four Big Sky matches will be played at home, with Eastern Washington and Idaho coming to visit during the first week of October. Another exciting component to the 2019 schedule is that Montana’s home matches will be played inside Dahlberg Arena, a move from the West Auxiliary Gym. Dahlberg Arena offers a larger venue, but also the use of multimedia technology, including the state-of-the-art video board that was installed in October 2018.
“We’re so excited to make the move to the Arena,” Lawrence said. “We got a little taste of it last year with our home tournament and Griz-Cat, and we were blown away by the number of compliments that we received from opposing coaches and teams. It’s a great arena that will create a great environment, and we’re just so excited to make it our home, and we’re thankful for everyone who has been accommodating to make it happen.”
Montana will play home and road matches against eight of 10 Big Sky schools. The Grizzlies will play Portland State (home) and Sacramento State (road) just once. Additional highlights include Montana’s home match against the defending Big Sky champions, Northern Arizona (Nov. 14), and Senior Night vs. Southern Utah (Nov. 16).
The 2019 Big Sky tournament will be held Nov. 28-30 at Sacramento State.
“There has been a lot of turnover among several powerhouse programs,” Lawrence said of the Big Sky Conference. “I’ve never felt like the bottom of the conference is very far from the top, and I especially think that’s true this year. I think you’ll see a lot of surprises and a lot of underclassmen stepping up. Whoever is able to do it consistently will likely be the team that has the most success.”
- Montana is 38-30 (.559) all-time against its non-conference opponents, with the majority of those matches coming against regional and former conference rival Gonzaga.
- Montana will challenge itself out of the gate. Each of the Grizzlies’ first five opponents finished the 2018 season ranked in the top 150 of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), a metric used by the NCAA to evaluate the strength of teams. Overall, eight of Montana’s 12 non-conference opponents had top-150 RPIs.
- Montana will play two conference champions, in addition to facing Big Sky champion Northern Arizona. Denver went unbeaten in the Summit League and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the fifth consecutive season. Ball State won the Mid-American Conference West Division and played in the National Invitational Volleyball Championship – the same postseason tournament Northern Colorado did, as well.
- There is some familiarity with the schedule. Montana has played several of its opponents in the past five years, including Ball State in 2014, Air Force and Denver in 2015, San Jose State in 2017, and Gonzaga and UTEP in 2018.
- Montana and UTEP will be playing for the fourth consecutive season. The Grizzlies are 4-0 all-time vs. the Miners, including wins in 2017 – Lawrence’s first match as head coach – and 2018.
- Montana has a long history against Gonzaga. Over the past 35 years, the two teams have played in all but four seasons.
- Montana and Pacific also have history against one another. The two teams played in both the 1990 and 1991 NCAA tournaments – the Grizzlies’ first two as a program.
- Montana and Grand Canyon have never met on the court.
- Montana has increased its win total each of the past two seasons under Lawrence. In 2018, the Grizzlies qualified for the Big Sky tournament for the first time since 2014.
- The Grizzlies return seven players from last year’s team, including starters at setter (Ashley Watkins), outside hitter (Missy Huddleston) and libero (Sarina Moreno).
Montana has a large incoming class, with seven freshmen set to join the program over the summer.