(Editor's note: University of Montana athletics release)
MISSOULA -- Questions remain regarding what college athletics will look like this fall, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic that forced universities across the country to move to remote learning in March. Steps were recently taken in a positive direction, however, allowing the Montana volleyball program to finalize its 2020 slate.
"We recognize that things can still change, and we're prepared to adapt to those potential changes, but we're also hopeful and excited that we will get a 2020 season," fourth-year head coach Allison Lawrence said. "It's really fun to see the schedule that we have planned, and it's a reminder and motivator for us throughout the summer."
Montana's 2020 schedule begins in a big way, with a home tournament featuring Oregon State of the Pac-12 (Aug. 28) and regional rival Gonzaga (Aug. 30). It marks the second time in three season that the Grizzlies will bring a Power-5 opponent to Missoula, which is something not lost on Lawrence.
"I love that we can bring big-name opponents to our home gym," Lawrence said. "It gives us a challenge against strong, regional teams, while also giving our fans a high-level volleyball experience. I'm proud that we can put on a tournament like this, for both our players and our fans."
The match against Oregon State will also have special meaning to Lawrence, who played for the Beavers in the early 2000s and finished her career ranked in the top 10 in OSU history for kills, digs and service aces.
Montana and Gonzaga will play for the third season in a row and sixth time in the past seven seasons. Most notable for Griz fans was a thrilling five-set home win in 2018.
"That weekend will be a challenging measuring stick right out of the gate," Lawrence said.
The next two weekends of non-conference play will see the Grizzlies travel to Chicago and Grand Forks, N.D.
Chicago State's tournament (Sept. 4-5) features six teams, with the Grizzlies playing three of them. The weekend will open with a double-header against Eastern Illinois and Chicago State, before taking on Butler the following morning. Montana hasn't played any of the three teams since at least 2001.
The following weekend, Montana will make a trip to a familiar spot to play in North Dakota's tournament (Sept. 11-12). The Fighting Hawks were previously members of the Big Sky Conference, with UM and UND playing at least once every season from 2009 through 2017, as well as a preseason scrimmage in Missoula last fall.
Montana will open the weekend against the host team, before facing Lamar and Drake the following day.
"We liked these two tournaments because we felt like there was a good mix of teams who will challenge us but also allow us to strongly compete and hopefully have some success. We believe we can firmly be in the mix in both of these tournaments."
The Grizzlies' preseason schedule will conclude in an unusual way, with Montana traveling to Bozeman to play Montana State in a non-conference showdown (Sept. 18).
The initial Big Sky schedule had the two rivals playing just once in 2020, in Missoula, so the two in-state schools agreed to add another match to the schedule, in September in Bozeman. The revamped Big Sky schedule, which was recently reformatted due to COVID-19, now sees the two teams playing twice – as usual – but both meetings are in Missoula.
"Our rivalry with MSU is so unique, and part of that is every year you get to go into their gym and deal with their atmosphere, and then they come to us and feel the same thing," Lawrence said. "To me, it's important, regardless of how many times you play them in Missoula, that their team and their seniors have a Griz-Cat on their home court.
"Many of our players' favorite match of their entire careers is playing in Bozeman. Those memories never leave you, home or away, so it was crucial to me to still have that game."
To help limit travel, nights spent on the road and expenses, the Big Sky Conference switched its format away from a traditional home-and-home schedule. Montana will still play most opponents twice, but instead of playing once at home and once on the road, both will come in the same venue, on back-to-back nights.
Coming to Missoula will be Weber State (Oct. 2-3), Montana State (Oct. 15-16), Idaho (Oct. 29-30) and Sacramento State (Nov. 19-20).
It's something Lawrence and the student-athletes have never experienced before, and will pose some unique challenges different from how volleyball is typically played.
"I think fans will see fewer predictable outcomes because a lot more is up in the air when you play a team on back-to-back nights," Lawrence said. "It's something we've never had to account for before, but things like fatigue, roster depth, preparation and mental toughness will be tested in new ways. I think that will be exciting, and will teach us a new way to prepare, and new way to respond to both winning and losing."
The league schedule, which was trimmed from 18 matches to 16, will also feature a four-team conference tournament in Greeley, Colo. The postseason tournament was originally cut from the schedule, but the coaches fought to keep it because of the value it brings to programs.
Even though it will be harder to get into, with now half as many teams qualifying, it still gives teams something to strive for throughout the course of the season.
"The experience of chasing that goal and fighting to make it for the third year in a row has as much meaning as ever for us," Lawrence said of the conference tournament. "After all of the chaos and unknown, and a lost spring season, we're grateful to have these dates on the calendar to look forward to."
Montana, which played eight freshman a season ago – with at least three starting every match – will once again have a young roster. The Grizzlies bring in six freshmen, as well as two upperclassmen transfers. The Grizzlies' roster breakdown includes one senior, two juniors, seven sophomores and six freshmen.
- Montana will open its season at home for the first time in 2014.
- Three of Montana's four home conference weekends coincide with home football games in Missoula. Montana hosts Montana State Oct. 16-17, before football plays Sacramento State Oct. 18; the Grizzlies host Idaho Oct. 29-30, followed by a home football game vs. Southern Utah on Oct. 31; the Grizzlies close their regular season vs. Sacramento State Nov. 19-20, a day before football's Brawl of the Wild inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
- Montana hasn't played Oregon State since 1998, with the Beavers' last trip to Missoula coming in 1992.
- Montana is 29-17 all-time against Gonzaga, including a thrilling five-set home victory in 2018. The Grizzlies and Bulldogs will be playing for the third season in a row and sixth time in the past seven seasons.
- Montana and Eastern Illinois have met once before, a 3-1 road loss in 2001.
- Montana and Chicago State have met once before, a 1998 neutral-site sweep.
- Montana and Butler have met once before, a 3-2 Griz victory on a neutral court in 2000.
- Montana and North Dakota, a former member of the Big Sky Conference, met 16 times between 2009 and 2017, with Montana's lone win coming in the first meeting, in 2009 in Missoula.
- Montana and Lamar have met once before, a 3-1 neutral-site victory in 1989.
- Montana is 1-1 against Drake, winning in 2005 before losing on the road, 3-1, in 2017.
- Montana opens Big Sky Conference play at Idaho State Sept. 24-25. Each of the past two seasons, Montana has closed the regular season in Pocatello, winning both times to qualify for the Big Sky tournament.
- Weber State visits Missoula Oct. 2-3. The Wildcats played in the Big Sky tournament championship game a season ago, coming within two points of qualifying for the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats instead played in the NIVC postseason tournament, advancing to the third round after beating both Boise State and Wyoming.
- The Grizzlies travel to Southern Utah Oct. 9-10. In November, the Grizzlies beat the Thunderbirds at home on Senior Night.
- Montana hosts Montana State on back-to-back nights (Oct. 15-16). The two teams have met 115 times in their histories, with the Grizzlies owning a 29-22 edge in Missoula.
- Montana will play at Eastern Washington Oct. 22-23. The Grizzlies have won four of the past five meetings against the Eagles overall, including a 2018 win in Cheney.
- Montana and Idaho will meet in Missoula Oct. 29-30. The Grizzlies won the most-recent meeting, last November in Moscow, which was Montana's second win in the series since 2000.
- Montana will make its final road trip Nov. 6-7 at Portland State. Montana's late-October victory over the Vikings last fall turned its season around, sparking a winning record over the back half of the conference season to qualify for the conference tournament.
- After a bye week in mid-November, Montana will host Sacramento State to close the regular season (Nov. 19-20), including Senior Night. The Hornets didn't visit Missoula last fall, but in their most-recent visit, in September 2018, Montana beat Sacramento State – the defending Big Sky South Division champions – in five sets, part of a 3-0 start to league play that year.
- A four-team Big Sky Conference tournament will be held Nov. 24-25 in Greeley, Colo.
- Montana will not play Northern Arizona or Northern Colorado. The Grizzlies have played NAU at least once every season since 1987, and the Bears at least once each year since 2006.
2020 Montana volleyball schedule
*Bold denotes home game
|Friday, Aug. 28||Oregon State||Missoula, Mont.||7 p.m.|
|Saturday, Aug. 29||[Oregon State vs. Gonzaga]||Missoula, Mont.||2 p.m.|
|Sunday, Aug. 30||Gonzaga||Missoula, Mont.||2 p.m.|
|Friday, Sept. 4||vs. Eastern Illinois||Chicago, Ill.||8 a.m.|
|Friday, Sept. 4||at Chicago State||Chicago, Ill.||12 p.m.|
|Saturday, Sept. 5||vs. Butler||Chicago, Ill.||9 a.m.|
|Friday, Sept. 11||at North Dakota||Grand Forks, N.D.||6 p.m.|
|Saturday, Sept. 12||vs. Lamar||Grand Forks, N.D.||9 a.m.|
|Saturday, Sept. 12||vs. Drake||Grand Forks, N.D.||4 p.m.|
|Friday, Sept. 18||at Montana State||Bozeman, Mont.||7 p.m.|
|Thursday, Sept. 24||at Idaho State*||Pocatello, Idaho||TBD|
|Friday, Sept. 25||at Idaho State*||Pocatello, Idaho||TBD|
|Friday, Oct. 2||Weber State*||Missoula, Mont.||7 p.m.|
|Saturday, Oct. 3||Weber State*||Missoula, Mont.||5 p.m.|
|Friday, Oct. 9||at Southern Utah*||Cedar City, Utah||TBD|
|Saturday, Oct. 10||at Southern Utah*||Cedar City, Utah||TBD|
|Thursday, Oct. 15||Montana State*||Missoula, Mont.||7 p.m.|
|Friday, Oct. 16||Montana State*||Missoula, Mont.||7 p.m.|
|Thursday, Oct. 22||at Eastern Washington*||Cheney, Wash.||TBD|
|Friday, Oct. 23||at Eastern Washington*||Cheney, Wash.||TBD|
|Thursday, Oct. 29||Idaho*||Missoula, Mont.||7 p.m.|
|Friday, Oct. 30||Idaho*||Missoula, Mont.||7 p.m.|
|Friday, Nov. 6||at Portland State*||Portland, Ore.||TBD|
|Saturday, Nov. 7||at Portland State*||Portland, Ore.||TBD|
|Thursday, Nov. 19||Sacramento State*||Missoula, Mont.||7 p.m.|
|Friday, Nov. 20||Sacramento State*||Missoula, Mont.||7 p.m.|
|Tuesday, Nov. 24||Big Sky Tournament semifinals||Greeley, Colo.||TBD|
|Wednesday, Nov. 25||Big Sky Tournament finals||Greeley, Colo.||TBD|