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Montana Grizzlies taking on top-seed Northern Colorado in Big Sky volleyball quarterfinals

Posted: 2:39 PM, Nov 27, 2019
Updated: 2019-11-27 17:36:14-05
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(University of Montana Media Release)

MISSOULA -- To fully appreciate what the Montana volleyball team has done over the past two years, one must fully see where the program was at prior to that. During a three-year stretch from 2015-17, Montana won just 10 Big Sky matches combined. The Grizzlies missed the conference tournament – which takes the top eight teams – each season, finishing no better than 10th.

A season ago, Montana posted its most wins since 2013 and qualified for the Big Sky tournament. This year, after a slow start that included acclimating eight freshmen to the lineup, the Grizzlies are back in the postseason tournament once again.

Not many people expect the Grizzlies to make much noise this week in Sacramento. After all, Montana is playing as the No. 8 seed and going up against No. 1 Northern Colorado, a team that has lost just one time in its past 18 matches. On the season, Northern Colorado has won 23 matches, roughly the same number the Grizzlies have won in the past three seasons combined (25).

Yet, why count the Grizzlies out? This is a team that rebounded from a 1-8 start to league play to finish with a good enough record to reach the conference tournament. In fact, just three schools had a better record during the second half of the conference season than Montana did. Even in the losses, Montana was competitive. The Grizzlies have won at least a set in 11 consecutive matches and 15 of their last 16. Three of their Big Sky losses came in five sets.

"We're playing with a lot of momentum and a lot of confidence right now," third-year head coach Allison Lawrence said. "We keep getting better through our wins and losses and are improving in the areas we're focusing on in practice. We've learned to take control of our process and our game."

This, again, coming from a team that lost the first 25 sets it played to begin the season and was just 2-17 on the year one month ago.

The Grizzlies have been fighting over the last month to pass enough teams to get to this point. They did so, jumping Eastern Washington, Idaho State and Portland State while also picking up wins over tournament teams Idaho, Montana State and Southern Utah.

Now that they're here, the message doesn't change. Montana's already been in do-or-die mode, needing to win at Idaho State last Saturday to clinch a tournament spot. The Grizzlies did. No matter the opponent or the stage, Lawrence still wants her team playing loose and playing confident, and more than anything, fighting for more time with each other.

"Through the first half of conference we had potential, but it was all about who we were becoming," Lawrence said. "In the past month, we finally became. We don't want to be finished playing with this group, so we're rallying around the idea of extending our season to have more time with our seniors and more time with this team."

All four quarterfinal matches will take place on Thanksgiving day, with the semifinals set for Friday and the championship on Saturday. First serve for Montana's match against Northern Colorado is set for Thursday at 5:30 p.m. (MT). The match can be streamed worldwide on Pluto TV (ch. 530).

TOURNAMENT TIDBITS

  • This is the Grizzlies' 19th appearance in the tournament, tied with Eastern Washington and Sacramento State for the second-most appearances all-time (past and current teams).
  • After going three consecutive seasons without qualifying, the Grizzlies have advanced to the Big Sky tournament in back-to-back seasons.
  • It marks the first time since 2013-14 and just the third time in the past 20 years, that the Grizzlies have qualified two years in a row (2006-08 being the other time).
  • Montana is looking for its first win in the tournament since 2013 (quarterfinals vs. Northern Arizona).
  • The No. 8 seed is 0-5 all-time vs. the No. 1 seed. Montana has never played as the No. 8 seed.
  • The Grizzlies and Bears have met one other time in the tournament, with UNC winning in five sets in the 2006 quarterfinals.
  • Montana advanced to the tournament finals five years in a row from 1990-94, winning it all in 1991.

LATE-SEASON SURGE
After going 1-8 to start Big Sky play, the Grizzlies posted a winning record in the back half of their league schedule. In fact, just three teams had a better record in the second half of conference play than Montana. During that time, Montana won three matches on the road, and beat four of the seven teams it lost to the first time around

IMPROVEMENTS ALL AROUND
Montana's season can be summed up into three chunks, with the Grizzlies improving immensely throughout the season.

  • Phase I: Playing without starting setter Ashley Watkins, in addition to eight players making their collegiate debuts, Montana had a non-conference season to forget. The Grizzlies lost their first 25 sets played and went 1-10 during its four-week preseason.
  • Phase II: Montana's record didn't improve much through the first half of conference play, with the Grizzlies going 1-8, but the level of play improved greatly. Montana increased its numbers in every statistical category and won at least a set in six of nine matches.
  • Phase III: Montana has continued to elevate its game each week during its recent surge, posting the fourth-best record over the back half of Big Sky play. Montana picked up three road wins and went 4-3 against teams it lost to in the first half of the season, and once again, increased in every statistical category.

Below is a breakdown of Montana's statistical improvements in all three phases:

Category
Non-Conference
BSC 1st Half
BSC 2nd Half
Hitting Percentage
.118
.177
.214
Opponent Hitting Percentage
.298
.238
.211
Kills Per Set
9.58
11.24
12.77
Assists Per Set
8.59
10.55
12.21
Service Aces Per Set
0.97
1.09
1.38
Digs Per Set
11.60
14.27
16.44
Blocks Per Set
1.86
2.15
2.27

SCOUTING NORTHERN COLORADO

  • Northern Colorado was the runaway winner of the Big Sky regular-season title, going 17-1. The team's lone loss came Oct. 24 at Northern Arizona, and since, UNC has won nine consecutive matches.
  • Overall, the Bears hold a record of 23-7, including a non-conference win over Oregon State of the Pac-12.
  • Three Bears earned first-team All-Big Sky recognition earlier this week: Junior S Daisy Schultz, sophomore OH Kailey Jo Ince and junior OH Taylor Muff. Junior MB Lauren Hinrichs was named to the second team.
  • UNC leads the Big Sky for hitting percentage (.259), assists (13.47 per set) and kills (14.42 per set).
  • The Bears rank relatively low in the Big Sky for blocks (1.68 per set, 10th) and digs (15.17 per set, 11th), but are still limiting opponents to .184 hitting (71st in NCAA).
  • UNC ranks 37th nationally with 1.63 service aces per set. Sophomore DS Kyndall Feather has 42 aces on the season (56th in NCAA), a UNC record during the school's Division-I era. Senior DS Taylor Els is the program's DI career leader, with 106.
  • Muff recorded her 11th double-double of the season with 14 digs to go along with her 15 kills in last week's regular-season finale. She is UNC's second-leading attacker and digger, and ranks seventh in Big Sky play with 3.44 kills per set.
  • Ince has reached 20-plus kills six times this season, and ranks second in Big Sky play with 4.30 kills per set and ninth with a .292 hitting percentage. Nationally, she ranks in the top 75 for both kills per set and points per set. She is 22 kills away from setting a UNC DI single-season record.
  • Schultz has eight matches this season with 50-plus assists, and has recorded 1,294 on the season. Schultz, who leads the Big Sky and ranks 19th nationally with 12.38 assists per set, is 90 assists away from tying the DI program single-season record.
  • Els tallied 17 digs in last Saturday's win, giving her 1,733 for her career. She is two digs shy of tying Amanda Arterburn for fourth on the all-time list.
  • Lauren Hinrichs ranks third in Big Sky play with a .346 hitting percentage. A season ago, she was the league's Newcomer of the Year.
  • UNC advanced to the Big Sky semifinals last season before qualifying for the NIVC postseason tournament. The Bears returned 10 letterwinners from that roster.
  • Lyndsey Oates, the 2019 Big Sky Coach of the Year – her fourth career honor – has been with UNC since 2005. She has compiled more than 250 career wins, with the Bears advancing to the NCAA tournament four times under her guidance.

SERIES VS. THE BEARS
Northern Colorado has had Montana's number recently. The Grizzlies are 9-21 all-time vs. the Bears, and are looking for their first win in the series since 2013. UNC has won 10 in a row in the series, but Montana, at times, has played the Bears tough, including a 3-2 loss last year in Missoula after the Grizzlies led 2-1, and a 3-1 defeat earlier this month.

Missy Huddleston has been in double figures for kills three times in her career against UNC, leading Montana with 16 kills and a career-high nine blocks in the most-recent meeting. Amethyst Harper had 11 kills, while Janna Grimsrud added nine. Those two led Montana's offense in the September meeting in Greeley, with Grimsrud hitting .429 and Harper hitting .333. In last month's matchup, Montana dominated at the net, recording 14 team blocks.

ALL-CONFERENCE HUDDLESTON
Senior Missy Huddleston was named to the All-Big Sky Conference second team on Monday. The Grizzlies have now received an all-conference selection in back-to-back seasons, after the program went three consecutive years (2016-18) without a single pick.

Over the past four seasons, Huddleston has played in 114 of Montana's 115 matches. She's started 97 of them, and over the past four seasons has missed just 14 sets (out of 419). Huddleston will finish her career with nearly 1,000 digs and 900 kills, and more than 150 blocks and 50 service aces.

Some of her top individual moments include in 2018, when she totaled a career-high 24 kills on .333 hitting in a five-set win over Gonzaga. Facing match point in Set 5, she recorded a kill and service ace coming out of a timeout to put the Griz on top. Earlier this month, she had 17 kills and zero errors (.586 hitting) at Eastern Washington – one of two Big Sky players all season to record 17 kills in a match without an error – and she followed that performance up with 22 kills at a .321 clip the following game against Northern Arizona. She had nine blocks in a match vs. regular-season champion Northern Colorado.

HATS OFF FOR HARPER
Freshman Amethyst Harper continues to develop into not only Montana's go-to attacker, but one of the top hitters in the entire conference. Last week, she set a Montana record for most kills ever by a freshman, entering the tournament with 342.

During 18 Big Sky matches, Harper averaged 3.71 kills per set on .230 hitting, also adding 2.72 digs per set (second on the team) and 0.54 blocks per set (fourth). Her kills-per-set average ranked fifth in Big Sky play and was first among freshmen. Harper was in double figures for kills in 16 of 18 league matches, including 11 in a row to close the regular season. She led Montana for kills 13 times. Over the final five weeks, only UNC sophomore Kailey Jo Ince averaged more kills per set than Harper.

Harper was the league's only player – regardless of class – to record 21 or more kills in three separate four-set matches. She became the third Montana freshman to tally 21 kills in a match since scores dropped from 30 to 25 in 2008, and the only one to do so multiple times or in a four-set match.

MISSY IN THE MIDDLE
Being without its leading point-scorer in late October, Janna Grimsrud (injury), Montana moved senior right-side attacker Missy Huddleston to the middle, a position she hadn't played since doing so off and on during high school. Seemingly overnight, she transitioned from a good player into one of the league's top blockers and most-feared attackers.

Through the first 19 matches of the season, with Huddleston playing on the right side, she averaged a respectable 2.14 kills per set – which ranked third on the team – and hit at a .134 clip. She averaged 2.42 digs and 0.46 blocks per set.

The Grizzlies then moved Huddleston to the middle blocker position in late October, where she received an uptick in production in every way possible. In the 10 matches since, Huddleston is averaging 3.10 kills per set and is hitting .276. Her digs-per-set average is up, to 2.54, but the biggest difference is in her blocking, where she is averaging a league-best 1.15 blocks per set during that span. She was twice named the Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Week in November.

In just 10 matches, Huddleston recorded 51 blocks. To put that number in perspective, she had 30 blocks in the 19 matches to start the 2019 season. Another way to put it, she had 46 blocks during her entire sophomore and junior seasons, when she was a starter on the left side.

GO TO GRIMSRUD
Janna Grimsrud has made the most of her senior season. After playing sporadically through her first three seasons, including just nine matches in 2018 (six kills), Grimsrud is Montana's top blocker and most efficient hitter, and was Montana's leading point-scorer before her injury in late October. She has led Montana for blocking 17 times, kills on nine occasions and in hitting percentage seven times.

Prior to her injury, which forced her to miss two matches and play with a cast ever since her return, Grimsrud ranked in the top 10 in the Big Sky for both blocking and attacking. Grimsrud has hit above .500 in three matches this season, in addition to a 19-kill performance on .462 hitting at Northern Arizona (Oct. 12). Just one other Big Sky player this season has as many kills while hitting that high. Grimsrud was named to the all-tournament team of three of four preseason tournaments.

WATKINS' MILESTONE
Senior setter Ashley Watkins will start her 99th career match on Thursday. She enters the match ranked sixth in Montana history with 3,381 career assists, a number that is particularly impressive considering her freshman season was spent as a setter/hitter combo.

On the season, Watkins ranks fifth in Big Sky play with 10.15 assists per set, including 56 in a four-set win at Idaho State last week. She also has 13 service aces in the past eight matches, including five in a win over Southern Utah and four in a victory at Idaho. Watkins also has 35 career double-doubles.

The biggest impact that she's made, however, is reflected in the team stats. In the eight matches that Watkins missed, Montana averaged 9.39 kills per set and hit at a .119 clip. With Watkins, the Griz are averaging 11.89 kills per set on .190 hitting. Even more impressive, over the past month, Montana is averaging 12.77 kills per set on .214 hitting.

ELSA'S ACES
During a three-match stretch from Sept. 26 through Oct. 4, redshirt freshman Elsa Godwin served up 12 service aces across nine sets. She had five in a three-set win over Eastern Washington, and four the follow night in a four-set match vs. Idaho. The five-ace performance against the Eagles is tied for the most in a three-set match this season by a Big Sky athlete.

During Big Sky play, Godwin ranks fourth in the league with 0.40 service aces per set. In addition to her aces, Godwin also ranks fourth on the team with 1.68 kills per set, plus 0.39 blocks per set (sixth) and 1.58 digs per set (sixth). She has led Montana for kills four times this season, including a dozen on .310 hitting last week at Weber State, and 11 kills on .429 hitting vs. Idaho State in October.

SEMADENI SETTLING IN
When Missy Huddleston moved to the middle, Catie Semadeni took Huddleston's spot on the right side. The moves have worked out for everyone, with Semadeni shining at her new position.

Through her first 16 collegiate matches – all on the left – Semadeni averaged 0.85 kills per set on -.034 hitting. Over the past nine matches on the right, she is averaging 1.74 kills per set on .263 hitting. Semadeni has three times been in double figures for kills – including a career-high 12 at Idaho State last Saturday – and four times has hit above .300 – including three times in the past four matches.

STRONG AT THE NET
Montana's best statistical category all season has been blocking, with the team averaging 2.22 blocks per set during league play (fourth in the Big Sky). For perspective, the season before Allison Lawrence took over as head coach, in 2016, Montana averaged 1.42 blocks per set, which ranked 311th nationally.

Montana has been out-blocked just 12 times in 29 matches this season.

RACKING UP DIGS
Over the past two months, Montana has increased its digs-per-set average by more than 40 percent. The Grizzlies averaged just 11.60 digs per set during non-conference play, which ranked last in the league. Montana's season total is now 14.18, including 16.44 per set over the past month.

The Grizzlies recorded a season-high 95 digs in a four-set win last week at Idaho State, and over the past 16 matches have been out-dug just three times. Libero Sarina Moreno – who set a Montana freshman record with 429 digs in 2018 – leads the team and ranks 10th in Big Sky play with 3.50 digs per set. Moreno has been in double figures for digs in 11 consecutive matches, including 24 digs in a four-set win at Idaho State and a season-high 27 at Northern Arizona. Moreno also has 14 service aces over the past 10 matches.

Fellow defensive specialist Isabelle Garrido has been in double figures for digs nine times this season, including five in a row from Oct. 24-Nov. 8. The freshman has seven service aces in her past seven matches.

INCREASED ATTACKING
After hitting above .220 just twice through the season's first 24 matches, Montana has done so in five consecutive matches, including a season-high .327 clip vs. Southern Utah. During the second half of conference play, Montana is out-hitting its opponents overall.

SIGNATURE VICTORIES
Montana has had two signature wins in the past month, defeating both Montana State (Oct. 29) and Idaho (Nov. 7) on the road. The four-set win at MSU was Montana's first in Bozeman since 2015. The Grizzlies had lost 14 in a row at Idaho, with their last win in Moscow coming in 1991 – before any current player was born. Montana was the first Big Sky school to beat Idaho in Moscow this season; the Vandals were previously 5-0 in Big Sky play in their home gym.

YOUTH ON DISPLAY
Montana has been forced to rely heavily on freshmen, with nine of the 13 players on roster never before playing in a collegiate match prior to the start of the season.

Not only have the freshmen played, but they have played key roles. Eight freshmen have played, with all eight earning a set start and seven starting a match. The Grizzlies have started at least three freshmen in every match this season.

NO EASING IN
Montana played an incredibly challenging non-conference schedule, with the 11 opponents combining for a 76-58 non-conference record (.567). Overall, eight of the 11 teams finished non-conference play with a .500 or better record, including Grand Canyon and Santa Clara, who each won 10 matches.

HOME SWEET HOME
For the second consecutive season, Montana averaged more than 500 fans per game, a figure which ranked fourth in the Big Sky. Just two seasons ago, in 2017, the Grizzlies ranked eighth.

TRENDING UP
Montana ranked last or second-to-last in the Big Sky Conference in every statistical category before Allison Lawrencetook over as head coach prior to the 2017 season. In two seasons since, the Grizzlies have risen by at least three spots in each category, and have increased their assists, kills, blocks and digs by roughly 100 spots apiece in the national rankings.

Montana had a banner season in 2018, posting 10 victories, its highest win total since 2013. The Grizzlies qualified for the Big Sky tournament for the first time since 2014.