(Editor's note: University of Montana media release)
MISSOULA -- National Signing Day finally feels somewhat normal to Allison Lawrence.
The Montana volleyball coach was tasked with rebuilding the program four years ago, taking over a roster that had little on-the-court success and needed fresh life on and off of it. Two years ago, the Grizzlies brought in seven freshmen. Last November, six more freshmen joined the fold, with two additional transfers added to the mix in the spring. For a roster that has six players on the court, that's a lot of newness in a short period of time.
The newcomers made an immediate impact, with the 2018 signing class starting 100 combined matches as true freshmen. The 2019 class was expected to play significant roles, as well, before its season got pushed to the spring.
Lawrence no longer feels the need to overturn her roster. She believes she has the core to compete and start moving up in the Big Sky Conference, and that signing classes moving forward can now be additional pieces to increase competition, rather than entire roster makeovers.
"I can't even explain the growth and development of our current young players, which makes me feel like we're in such a good spot," Lawrence said. "Our future is in place, and the future of the program is in such good hands, and I know that where we're headed is going to attract more people. These players have bought in to the program and are doing the work to take us to the next level."
The next step occurred on Wednesday, with Montana signing two prep players to its roster. The Grizzlies welcomed Paige Clark, a setter from Idaho Falls, and Sierra Dennison, a middle blocker from Missoula's Sentinel High School.
"We're so excited to have Paige and Sierra join our program," Lawrence said. "With these two, once we started recruiting them, we instantly knew they were the athletes for us. I believe that both of them the ability to continue to push us to that next level, which is such an exciting feeling."
Paige Clark / 6-1 / Setter / Idaho Falls, Idaho / Thunder Ridge High School
Most of the time during the recruiting process, it takes time on both sides. Watching highlight tapes can lead to email exchanges, which can transition to phone calls and then watching a player compete live. If there's significant interest, an invitation will be extended for the recruit to come to campus and see what the next four years of her life might look like.
With Paige Clark, the interest was there from Montana's end instantaneously.
Clark wasn't initially on Montana's radar, but with Montana having an open day last November, Lawrence traveled to Coeur d'Alene for the Idaho state tournament. She wasn't there to watch anyone in particular, as is often the case, but rather just to get eyes on multiple courts and see if anything caught her eyes.
That's when she spotted Clark.
"I'm not kidding, within 15 seconds, seeing Paige's athleticism, ability and enthusiasm, we just knew," Lawrence said. "She was really fun and exciting to recruit, because the feeling was instant for us that she was a no-brainer."
Aided by Clark at setter, Thunder Ridge won a state championship that weekend, further reinforcing Lawrence's interest.
While the interest was there from Montana's end, Clark was still feeling out what she wanted her college volleyball experience to look like. She took a visit to Missoula in January and liked what she saw, but didn't want to rush into any decisions.
Montana continued to show its interest with follow-up calls and letters, and once even driving to Idaho Falls on a Monday evening simply to watch Clark practice.
"If we want you to be a part of our program, we're going to put in the time to be in front of you as much as possible, and to really observe and witness your career as a high school and club athlete," Lawrence said. "We're going to show genuine interest and try to develop relationships that are really strong by the time they hopefully come here."
So Lawrence and associate head coach Dana Hallisey grabbed some coffee, hopped in a car and blasted tunes for four and a half hours, simply to watch a practice. Then, once the practice was complete, got back in the car, drove home and dreamed of what adding a player like Clark to the program could mean.
Lawrence acknowledged they can't get to all of their recruits within a few hours, but the gesture made a difference to Clark.
"Those things definitely stood out to me," Clark said. "I love the coaches and felt like I automatically clicked with them. Something I loved about the whole process is we didn't just talk about volleyball. They cared about volleyball, but they cared about my life, and wanted to talk about whatever with me."
Clark still wasn't ready to fully commit, but each step along the way made her more and more confident in choosing to play for the Grizzlies.
She liked the city of Missoula and loved the coaches, and after talking with one of her high school's basketball coaches about everything that was attractive to her about Montana, he told her something that resonated with Clark.
"By the look of it, it sounds like you know what you want," Clark remembers him saying. "Why wait?"
So she didn't. While at a volleyball tournament over the summer, Clark texted Lawrence and asked if they could FaceTime. The conversation started out normal, talking about the tournament and getting an update on her week and summer.
Then, Clark panned the phone camera down showing off the Montana volleyball T-shirt she was wearing. Behind her, Clark's entire team and family popped into the frame, celebrating her decision to commit to the Grizzlies.
"I'm super close with my family, so I wanted them to all be part of it," Clark said, "and volleyball is a team sport, so I wanted my teammates to be able to celebrate this decision with me."
For Lawrence, it was one of the most unique ways she's received a verbal commitment.
"Everyone was screaming and crying and so excited," Lawrence said. "That was really cool, especially to see her entire team there to support her."
Clark has the accolades to be a great setter at the collegiate level.
On Wednesday, she was named Under Armour Girls High School All-America honorable mention, reserved for the top 150 players nationally. In August, she was named the best volleyball player in the state of Idaho by MaxPreps.
Over the past two seasons, led by former Idaho State assistant coach Keisha Fisher – who is a friend of Lawrence's – Thunder Ridge has won 69 matches (.734 winning percentage). The Titans won a 5A state championship in 2019 and a High Country Conference title in 2020, once again finishing in the top eight at the state tournament. Clark has earned numerous all-conference honors – both as a setter and hitter – as well as on the basketball court.
While she was primarily used as a setter, her versatility allows her to play a variety of roles, and gives Montana the option of running its offense in different ways, possibly even using a 6-2 offense with Clark setting in the front row and attacking in the back row.
"For an athlete who is 6-1, to be able to set at the level that she can and attack at the level she can is a rare find," Lawrence said. "The potential that we saw is that she could affect so many different parts of our game – as an attacker, as a blocker, as a setter. And then, she is one of the most competitive young players we have recruited. She has a desire to compete and to win, but her joy in doing so is so infectious."
Whatever role Clark fills, she believes her hard work and the excitement she plays with can ignite others. And mostly, she's excited for the opportunities that come with being on the court with a tight-knit group of girls.
"I'm super excited to meet and get to know the girls better," Clark said. "My sister played college volleyball, and her best friends to this day are her former teammates, so I'm excited to get to Missoula and start building that."
About Clark: Will be a 2021 graduate of Thunder Ridge High School… Born and raised in Idaho Falls, Idaho… Parents are Kimberly and Michael Clark… Has a brother Dalton, and sister, Payton… Payton played volleyball at Big Bend Community College… Is undecided on a major.
Sierra Dennison / 6-1 / Middle Blocker / Missoula, Montana / Sentinel High School
Sierra Dennison initially had no interest in staying in her hometown to play college volleyball. She wanted to become independent and move to a new state, and quite frankly, the hometown volleyball program wasn't very good.
Dennison wasn't on Lawrence's radar initially either. The two had crossed paths, particularly while Dennison was playing club for the Montana Volleyball Academy in 2018, but Dennison was a little undersized and didn't quite have the skillset to play at the Big Sky Conference level.
Fast forward another year and a lot had changed.
Lawrence was again at the Montana Volleyball Academy and noticed Dennison. Only she had to confirm it was actually her.
"I see her and I can't express how different she looked, to the point where I had to actually look up if it was her," Lawrence recalled. "Watching her play, she had become a no-brainer for us. Seeing how far she had gotten in nine months showed me how hard she's willing to work to evolve as a player. I immediately wanted her in our program and just hoped at that point I wasn't too late."
Dennison had grown and matured and looked like a completely different player on the court. By then, Lawrence had also started to turn around the Griz program, qualifying for the Big Sky Conference tournament in 2018, and Dennison could tell something was different.
From there, communication ramped up, drawing an instant connection on both sides. Not long after, the Sentinel High School star made the decision to stay in Missoula for her collegiate career.
"For me, the biggest thing was the growth of the program," Dennison said. "There had been so much development that I could physically see, at a higher rate than a lot of the other programs I was talking to. It got me thinking about how much more we could continue to grow in the next four years, and got me really excited."
While playing out of state would have had some perks, it also excited Dennison to think about her family (who live in Missoula) and her grandparents (in Seeley) and other relatives (in Kalispell) getting to watch her play on a regular basis.
Dennison will be the first to acknowledge it took time for her volleyball skills to develop. When she started playing in early middle school, it was very apparent to her that she had some work to do.
"I started at the bottom," she said. "I absolutely was far from the best player."
She gradually noticed a change, though, as she start to mature and get the hang of the sport. She started moving up on her teams, and up to better teams. By the time she was 16, she was playing on a U18 national club team.
"Once I got the hang of things, I feel like I took off from there," she said.
She credits her coaches at MVA who helped develop her, particularly that sophomore year when she said she experienced the most growth. But she also credits her family. Her father, Troy, played football at Washington State and currently coaches at Sentinel. Her older brother, Austin, plays junior hockey in North Carolina. She remembers listening to conversations her dad and brother would have after games – good games or bad – and started to absorb some of those conversations and advice.
She also credits her family for her competitive nature.
"In our family, everything is a competition," she said. "I'm super competitive in everything I do, and I think that's one thing that makes me stand out."
Another thing, she says is her leadership and spirit she shows on the court. Despite being a quiet person growing up, the sport brought out a different side of her.
"She's hyper competitive, something we look for always," Lawrence said of Dennison. "If she wasn't competitive, we wouldn't have seen that growth from her in that short time period. She has a demeanor that's calm and poised, and also just ruthlessly competitive, and I love that combination."
Dennison will be the third Sentinel Spartan on Montana's 2021 roster, joining Elsa Godwin and Sarina Moreno. When Dennison was a freshman, the latter two were winning a state championship as seniors. The age gap prevented them from playing together, but she remembers watching and looking up to them, and getting to know them over the years. Her former high school coach, Erin Keffeler, also played for the Griz.
While Montana wasn't her first choice initially, with time, piece by piece, it became apparent that being a Grizzly was what she wanted.
The human body has always been fascinating to Dennison, who has a 4.0 GPA and wants to incorporate athletics and the medical field by studying physical therapy. The fact that Montana has one of the top PT programs that people from all over the country come to was important. Plus her mother, Tina, graduated from Montana, while her great uncle, George, is a former UM president.
"The more I looked into it, and the more I looked into what I wanted, I realized how fortunate I was to grow up here in Missoula," Dennison said. "Montana is a great school and the volleyball program is really growing and has incredible people in it, and so it had everything that I wanted."
Off the court, Dennison checks all of the boxes. On the court, too, with the Sentinel prep star being named to the all-conference team in both 2018 and 2019 and the all-state second team in 2019, while captaining the Spartans and being her team's MVP.
"She has the motor we want in a player," Lawrence said. "She can move very quickly and go from slow to fast very efficiently. She has a very good jump, has a very quick arm and she can move her feet. As a middle blocker, you're moving in random directions very quickly, and making decisions very quickly. Her ability to do that stood out to me, and then she does things blocking that are extremely instinctual, to a degree that she's ahead of people her age."
About Dennison: Will be a 2021 graduate of Sentinel High School… Born and raised in Missoula, Montana… Parents are Troy and Tina Dennison… Has an older brother, Austin, and a younger sister, Elizabeth… Troy played linebacker at Washington State and is the current football coach at Sentinel… Austin plays junior hockey in North Carolina… Tina graduated from Montana… Great uncle, George Dennison, is a former UM president… Intends to study physical therapy.
Montana is coming off of back-to-back Big Sky Conference tournament berths in 2018 and 2019, posting a winning record in the back-half of conference play a season ago in order to do so. The Grizzlies' fall season got pushed to the spring due to COVID-19, with Montana scheduled to play a 16-match schedule, beginning Jan. 24.