(Editor's note: University of Montana media release)
MISSOULA — For years, Montana volleyball has existed on the periphery of the focus in Missoula. After a dominant stretch in the 80s and 90s, Montana endured a 21-year stretch with just two winning records from 2001 until last year.
The program appeared to be headed in a difficult direction when Allison Lawrence took over as head coach in 2013, going 19-64 over the previous three seasons while missing four out of six Big Sky Conference tournaments.
Since then, Lawrence has rebranded and reinvigorated Griz volleyball. She led Montana to a 17-12 record in 2022 – the program’s best mark since 1999 – and its highest Big Sky finish since 2010 with a 10-6 record. It earned her the conference’s Coach of the Year honor at the conclusion of the season.
Lawrence has now inked a new deal to keep her in Montana a while longer. Lawrence’s new contract runs through the end of the 2024 season.
“This means a lot on many levels,” Lawrence said. “Personally, as someone in our athletics community that has put what I feel is my heart and soul into this program it feels validating. I think in athletics, contracts are currency that show value. So for my value to be acknowledged in this way means a great deal personally.”
Lawrence and her husband Nate Michael have two kids, Wyatt and Carson. She said that this moment is special for her and her family.
“Any time an administration can show or promise stability for even a short period of time, it changes the quality of life for me, my kids, and my family,” Lawrence said.
And on top of all that a new contract may mean personally in the life of the coach, it also makes a huge difference in the direction of the program. Since taking over in 2017, Lawrence has been operating on a year to year basis.
She now has the stability to look into the future with confidence, and it’s something that she’s been looking to accomplish since taking over as head coach. A coach that gives power to the players inside her program, Lawrence also thinks its special to share the accomplishment with the team.
“Professionally, it is a huge milestone. It’s something that we haven’t done here,” Lawrence said. “You kind of think, this is a place and goal that I want to reach. To have done it with this team makes it so special.”
It’s big on a personal level and a professional level for Lawrence. But it’s also big on a program level. Montana volleyball is in safe hands with the reigning Big Sky Coach of the Year. The recognition from the Montana administration goes a long way in helping Lawrence build this program.
It signals to everyone involved that the current path is a good one, and that isn’t just the coaches and players. It’s all of the support staff that help make Grizzly volleyball what it is. As Lawrence said, the new contract is a structural investment, but at the same time a big symbolic step for the program.
“I think what it means to our program is that our administration has seen our growth, our trajectory, the investment of the athletes, coaches, trainers, academic support services inside the program, and wants to invest in it longer term,” Lawrence said. “It’s the biggest gesture that an administration can make to a group of people to say, ‘We have your back and we love what you’re doing.’
“It makes me feel very grateful to Kent and Jean (Gee) and our entire administration, but also to every athlete that I have coached here and also every person that works with our program.”
Montana athletic director Kent Haslam said that the growth shown by the program under Lawrence has been noticeable and commended her for the job she has done as the head coach.
“Allison has been an outstanding leader for our volleyball program both on the court and in the community,” Haslam said. “We were thrilled at the success of the team in 2022 and are excited for the future of Grizzly volleyball under Allison’s guidance.”
The road hasn’t been easy for Lawrence. The Grizzlies won just eight games in her first season and finished 3-13 in Big Sky play. They struggled through the 2021 spring season following COVID. For someone who gives so much of herself, putting her heart and soul into making the program into what she knows it can become, it could be grueling.
Lawrence has now enjoyed back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins, including the best year in Missoula this century. She has climbed within a single win of Nikki Best for third on the all-time wins list at Montana, and joined Dick Scott as the only two coaches in program history to win the Big Sky Coach of the Year.
And the Griz aren’t done yet. They’ve returned a pair of All-Big Sky performers in 2023 along with plenty of key contributors from last year’s 17-win team. The non-conference schedule is daunting, but when Big Sky play rolls around Lawrence and the team should be ready for any opponent.
“When you’re trying to turn something around or change it, and when you deeply care, the health of the program is so connected to your health,” Lawrence said. “It feels really good to know that the program is so healthy, and I think that allows me to acknowledge that I also feel healthy in it. My driver this whole time has been, can I love this thing back to life? That piece has been unbelievably meaningful to me.”