(University of Montana media release)
MISSOULA - Allison Lawrence walked away from Friday night encouraged. After all, her volleyball team essentially played point for point through three sets with an Idaho team that shared a Big Sky Conference regular-season title a season ago and was picked to again finish in the upper half in 2019.
But she also couldn't help but feel unsatisfied.
In many ways, Friday was Montana's best match of the season. But at the same time, the Grizzlies also knew they had every opportunity to win the match, despite falling in four sets (25-21, 25-23, 21-25, 25-16).
Montana led 19-16 in the opening set and led for 26 total points in the second frame, including as late as 18-14. Idaho finished strong in both sets, however, and the Grizzlies came up empty handed.
"It was hard, just knowing that a thing or two different and we could be in a complete different spot," Lawrence said. "I really felt like we had them on the ropes and were right where we needed to be for much of those two sets."
Montana wouldn't go away quietly, overcoming an early 5-1 deficit to win the third set and extend the match, before running out of gas in the fourth frame.
For a young team looking for stability and momentum, Lawrence hopes the Grizzlies found some of that this week. Montana was dominant in Thursday's sweep over Eastern Washington, before an encouraging showing again Friday.
"Our team is changing, and changing rapidly," Lawrence said. "It's so fun to see and has to be so motivating and validating for our group. We're a different team than we were two weeks ago, and especially a month ago."
A big reason why Montana was so competitive on Friday was the outstanding play of freshman outside hitter Amethyst Harper. The Fresno, California, native had 21 kills, which not only is a career high (her previous best was 12) but is the second-most this season by a Big Sky player during a four-set match.
Harper was dominant all night, but especially when her team needed her most. She had six kills in the second set and eight more in the third, including a string of four consecutive points that turned a third-set deficit into a three-point lead. Montana wouldn't trail for the remainder of the set, winning 25-21.
Despite being just a freshman, Harper is quickly making a name for herself. Friday marked the fifth time this season she has been in double figures for kills and the fifth time she has led Montana in that category.
"She's so capable of terminating in all situations, and it's been really fun to watch her figure that part out," Lawrence said. "I thought she did such a good job with her feet tonight, beating blocks with her feet. She can jump so well, so she can jump to the ball, and I thought tonight she got herself to the ball and was really in rhythm.
"We needed someone to step up in that way, and for a freshman to figure that out and so quickly, against a really good blocking team that's used to winning our conference, that gives you even more confidence."
Harper had extra inspiration on Friday, celebrating her late grandmother's birthday and dedicating the game to her.
"I wanted to play for her and leave it all out on the court for her," Harper said. "As a hitter, when you get a kill, the confidence builds. When I gain momentum, I jump higher, and that allows for more shots. I think Ashley (Watkins) and I trust each other, and I know that she's going to set it to me in the right spot and I'm going to put the ball down."
Harper was dominant, but she wasn't alone. Senior middle blocker Janna Grimsrud had a strong night with 12 kills on .524 hitting, making just one error on 21 attempts. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Elsa Godwin continued her astonishing stretch from the service line. She dropped in four aces on Friday, giving her nine over the past two matches and 12 over the past nine sets. She leads the Big Sky during conference play in that category.
The end result stings, especially considering Montana had opportunities to potentially win another set and perhaps the match, but Harper is encouraged by the way her team fought, and the momentum it's building.
"Everything is starting to click," the freshman said. "We're starting to play so much better as a team. We have a lot of chemistry as a team, on the court and outside of it, because you can't do it without everybody. The win last night was amazing and the loss tonight was hard, but I really think we're building as a team and heading in the right direction."
(on how her team is different than at the start of the season)
"When we had breakdowns tonight, they were less impactful than they've been in the past, and they happened late instead of at the start or middle of sets. We need to get to the point where we aren't having breakdowns period, but to get to 20 and feel like we're in control, that's a huge turning of a corner. We made huge moves forward this week."
(on what Montana did good and bad against a strong Idaho team)
"I thought we were doing things that caught them off guard. I thought we extended some rallies to the point where momentum was swinging in our favor, but we weren't aggressive enough during easy plays, and a really easy transition swing got them (Idaho) out of all of the work we had done to set up a point for ourselves. We're digging and getting a lot of swings, but we have to terminate a little bit more."
(on what makes Godwin such a strong server)
"She does a good job of stopping her hand, so it's hard to read if the ball is going to float or drop, and it moves enough that it keeps them off balance. She serves spots well, and I think she's in peoples' heads right now."
Montana will hit the road for Week 3 of Big Sky play. The Grizzlies face Southern Utah (Thursday) and preseason favorite Northern Arizona (Saturday).