(Editor's note: University of Montana media release)
MISSOULA – Saturday night was full of celebrations, first during the pregame Senior Night ceremony and then with a victory on the court. In its final home match of the season, Montana picked up a crucial win over Southern Utah, 3-1 (22-25, 25-18, 25-17, 25-12).
For Montana, it was one of the team's cleanest matches of the season. The Grizzlies hit a season-high .324 while tallying 12 blocks and 10 service aces. It also showed the team's continued progress, as Montana won for the third time this season against a team it lost to during the first half of conference play. The Thunderbirds beat the Grizzlies, 3-1, in early October in Cedar City.
"I was really impressed by our fight," head coach Allison Lawrence said. "We played a really crisp match and did a lot of things really well. I think our decision-making was really good, and once we started building confidence it didn't even have to be a decision anymore. We just took control of the game."
Montana started strong, jumping out to an 8-4 lead, but The Thunderbirds worked back to take their first lead at 13-12. The two teams were tied at 16-16 before Southern Utah scored the next three points, leading to a 25-22 victory.
Montana stayed loose and relaxed going into the second set, however, and it showed. After hitting .179 in the first set, Montana hit above .300 in each of the final three frames, including .355 in Set 2 and .478 in Set 4.
Montana built a 13-9 lead in Set 2, and led from that point forward, using a 6-0 run to break the score wide open. During the run, senior Ashley Watkins had three aces. Montana again jumped on Southern Utah early in Set 3 and led for the majority of the set, before turning it up another notch in Set 4. Behind three aces, plus two kills from senior Janna Grimsrud, Montana left no doubt, leading by scores of 9-4 and 13-6. The lead only grew from there, as Montana went on an 8-0 run to bury the Thunderbirds.
"The work we were putting into the details gave us some breathing room, which made the match really, really fun," Lawrence said. "We kept finding different gears to our game, and when we made adjustments, the point spread got more dramatic. I'm proud of the team for taking control of the process, because it's all about decision making."
With the win, Montana moved into a tie for eighth place with Portland State. The Grizzlies have the tiebreaker over the Vikings, due to their 3-1 win last month, meaning that with two matches to play, Montana is in the driver's seat to lock up a berth for the Big Sky tournament for the second year in a row.
The Grizzlies close the regular season at Weber State and Idaho State, needing to win at least one to extend their season.
That's a story for another day, however. Saturday night was all about the seniors.
"It's hard to put into words what those three have given to me and given to this program," Lawrence said. "They have worked so hard, regardless of their role, to do this experience the right way and to leave this program so much healthier and better than they found it. They've motived and inspired their coaches and teammates, and I think anybody who watches us play sees how well we respond to their energy and their fight.
"They've given so much that they deserve to get all that back in these moments. I loved tonight because we were fighting for more time with them, and that's where the focus was."
All three played a factor in Saturday's victory, and were on the court for the final point, a kill by Watkins.
Watkins finished the night with 37 assists, six kills and a career-high five service aces. Huddleston totaled 12 kills on .360 hitting, in addition to six blocks and an ace. Grimsrud had four kills at a .300 clip while stuffing two balls.
"The whole day was a haze trying to feel every second of it," Grimsrud said. "The game went so fast, but it was the most enjoyable game of volleyball that I've played here. Finishing that last point on the court with the other seniors was a dream come true."
Grimsrud moved into a starting role as a senior and has become one of the league's top blockers and attackers – leading her team for both categories. She was named to three preseason all-tournament teams, and a season ago was the team's Heart of the Grizzly award winner for her character and work ethic.
Huddleston has been a model of consistency, playing in more than 100 career matches (95 starts) and tallying nearly 1,000 career digs, 900 kills and 150 blocks. Over the past eight matches since moving to the middle blocker position, she leads the Big Sky for blocking and has twice been named the league's player of the week.
Watkins has accumulated more than 3,000 career assists and will finish her career ranked third in Griz history in the modern-scoring era. Not limited to setting, she has 80 career service aces and 33 double-doubles, and has started nearly 100 matches.
"It's been pretty engrained in all of us that this is a different team now than we have been," Grimsrud said. "We're feeling confident, but we also have to keep going into every game knowing it could be our last one. We have to be ready to go, and I think we're all ready to grind it out."