(Editor's note: University of Montana athletics release)
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Like it has done so many times this season, Montana showed that it can hang with the best of the best, putting together an impressive showing in Set 2 against No. 1 seed Northern Colorado Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Championships. The Grizzlies couldn't keep up with the Bears for the entire match, however, losing 3-1 (25-16, 22-25, 25-16, 25-10).
Thursday once again showed Montana's potential, but also the level the program must consistently perform at in order to get to that upper echelon of the Big Sky. Head coach Allison Lawrence is hopeful that after back-to-back trips to the Big Sky tournament – after three straight seasons of missing it – the Grizzlies can take that next step in 2020.
"In the locker room, we sat there for a minute because I wanted us to feel all of the emotions," Lawrence said. "We felt grief, knowing that was our last match as a group and our seniors' last match in a Montana jersey, but we also felt joy for what we accomplished this season and the joy that the seniors brought.
"And then wrapped up in the grief and joy was pain, knowing we came up short. It isn't enough for us to just make the tournament, or hope to make it. We put ourselves in a position early on this season that our goal was to make the tournament, because we fell so far behind every team. We did that. Now, we want to feel what it's like to keep going."
Freshman Amethyst Harper led the Grizzlies with 13 kills on .478 hitting, needing just 23 swings to do so. Senior Missy Huddleston had 12 kills while leading the Grizzlies for digs (11) and blocks (three).
After dropping the opening set, 25-16, Montana responded in a big way to even the match at 1-1. The Grizzlies hit .464 in the frame (15-2-28) and held the Bears to a .256 clip after they hit .500 in the opener.
The Set-2 victory was impressive considering the increased level of play compared to the first set, but also because Montana showed the maturity to finish down the stretch against a team that has lost just once time in its past 19 matches. The set featured six lead changes and 13 ties, but Montana would lead for the final nine points, getting three consecutive kills from Huddleston. That turned a 19-18 deficit into the Grizzlies' first multi-point lead.
The Bears got the following point on a play that Montana thought was complete, turning what would have been a four-point advantage to just two. Lawrence called timeout, and the pause in action worked. The Grizzlies earned the first point out of the timeout and three of the final five to win the set.
"To grab momentum from them and keep it for a period, against a team that is so efficient and so steady, I thought was a really big testament to the level of volleyball we're playing."
Hoping the shift in momentum would stay on Montana's side, Northern Colorado ended that with a 9-1 run that turned a 6-6 tie into one of the Bears' largest leads of the night up to that point. Montana would stay at least seven points behind for the remainder of the set. By that time, the Grizzlies looked out of gas, and Northern Colorado continued to apply the pressure to start the fourth set, jumping out to leads of 6-1 and 17-5. The Bears hit .545 in the set while holding Montana to .000 hitting.
Northern Colorado, which leads the Big Sky for hitting percentage, hit .403 on the night – the highest by a Montana opponent since the opening match of the season. The Grizzlies were also out-blocked, 6-4, after winning the battle at the net, 14-6, in the last meeting earlier this month.
"UNC is really good at what they do," Lawrence said. "They play with speed and control the ball, and for the second set we were able to slow them down. When we did that, I think our physicality matched theirs. I think we can use tonight to encourage us and fuel us moving forward."
To an outsider, the 2019 season might not have looked like a successful one, with the Grizzlies going 7-23 overall.
The Grizzlies, though, showed tremendous growth through the course of the season, keeping the coaching staff and players optimistic about the future.
After graduating 84 percent of its kills from a season ago, in addition to more than two-thirds of its blocks and starts, Montana essentially was starting from scratch in August. Nine of team's 13 roster members had never played in a collegiate match prior to the season opener. Six different freshmen started during the season, with at least three freshmen starting in every match.
Without one of the only veterans on the roster, starting setter Ashley Watkins, Montana lost the first 25 sets it played. The Grizzlies were more competitive come Big Sky play, but still entered the midway point with a 1-8 mark.
All of that makes Thursday's performance, even in defeat, all the more impressive. Just three teams posted a better record than the Grizzlies in the second half of the conference season, as Montana jumped enough teams to qualify for the Big Sky tournament. Despite the start, Montana still finished higher than where it was at in the preseason poll, with fellow Big Sky coaches predicting that Montana would not be in Sacramento this week.
The Grizzlies will graduate three key pieces from the 2019 roster – a trio who helped guide the program back into calm waters. Missy Huddleston became one of the league's top players in November, switching to the middle blocker position and becoming an all-conference selection. Ashley Watkins was a three-year starting setter who ranks sixth in school history for career assists. Janna Grimsrud became a starter in 2019, and when healthy, was among the league leaders for both blocking and hitting percentage.
"I can't say enough about our seniors," Lawrence said. "The culture is healthy, the fight is pure, and we're going to do some big things in the future because of what they've paved."
The roles that Montana's freshmen were asked to play this season were uncomfortable at times, but will serve the program well in the future. Amethyst Harper set a school record for most kills by a freshman, leading the Grizzlies and ranking fifth in the Big Sky with 3.71 kills per set. It could be argued that she should have been the league's freshman of the year. Harper ranked ahead of Weber State's Dani Nay for kills and blocks, was a six-rotation player who ranked third on the Griz for digs and was arguably more vital to her team's success, contributing a larger percentage of her team's kills and playing in every set during Big Sky play; Nay, who was a redshirt freshman while Harper was a true freshman, missed time in five of 18 matches.
In addition to Harper, Elsa Godwin was Montana's top server, ranking fourth in the Big Sky with 0.40 aces per set. She also led the Grizzlies for kills four times, including a dozen on .310 hitting last week at Weber State. After switching to the right side, Catie Semadeni increased her hitting percentage by .299 (-.034 to .263) and averaged nearly 2.00 kills per set. Montana also returns its two primary defensive specialists – libero Sarina Moreno and Isabelle Garrido – in addition to middle blocker Kelly Horning, who started 19 matches as a true freshman
"So many people have complimented our young players on their pose, their competitiveness and their physicality," Lawrence said. "You don't get freshman production without really good leadership from your seniors, who were battle tested. Everyone played their role, and we were us through it all, which gives me a lot of confidence moving forward."