(Editor's note: University of Montana press release)
OGDEN, Utah—Montana's best season since 2013 came to a close on Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Conference tournament. Montana pushed Weber State in two of the three sets, but couldn't power past the No. 1 seed on its home court. Weber State extended its home winning streak to a nation-leading 26 matches dating back to October 2019.
"There were times in conference where we were tight or nervous or too worried about the big picture, but I feel like we arrived at the conference tournament knowing who we are and where we're going, and that allowed us to be able to play free," head coach Allison Lawrence said. "That's what you want at the end of your season."
Montana and Weber State were tied at 23-23 in the first set, before Weber State won 25-23, and the Grizzlies again pushed the Wildcats in the third before falling 25-21. Perhaps most impressive was what Montana was able to do at the serve-receive line.
Weber State entered the match ranked fifth nationally with 2.37 service aces per set, but Montana held the Wildcats to just four total aces, their lowest total of Big Sky play. Montana actually recorded more service aces than Weber State, becoming just the third team to do that to Weber State all season.
Big Sky Conference Player of the Year Dani Nay, who ranks second nationally with more than two aces per match, was held to zero.
"We spent the majority of our time in Ogden working on serve-receive by rotation and scripting specific scenarios," Lawrence said. "Weber is such a good serving team, they can pick teams apart and not allow much offense. We knew, in order to have a chance, we had to stand firm and I thought our core passing group, led by Sarina (Moreno), showed great leadership and execution."
Montana also had moments offensively against a Wildcats defense that leads the Big Sky for opponent hitting. The Grizzlies hit .145 on the night, slightly better than Weber State's season average.
In the end, though, it wasn't enough. Montana was able to out-block (7.0 to 2.0) the Wildcats, in addition to recording more aces, but the Grizzlies recorded 16 fewer kills and allowed the Wildcats to hit .274.
Montana was led offensively by junior outside hitter Jackie Howell, who had eight kills in addition to a team-high 13 digs. Junior right-side attacker Catie Semadeni [gogriz.com] had seven kills and two blocks, while senior middle blocker Peyten Boutwell had a team-most four blocks, plus two kills.
Seniors Sarina Moreno and Elsa Godwin had 10 digs apiece, with Moreno also recording a pair of aces.
Freshman outside hitter Paige Clark, who earlier this week was named to the All-Big Sky Conference second team, was held to six kills on .045 hitting her second-lowest kill total since switching to the outside hitter position in early October. Clark did have back-to-back service aces in the third set, though, giving Montana a 3-1 lead early.
"Weber has incredible size," Lawrence said. "They're physical in ways that we haven't seen consistently in conference, and they're a big block, playing behind one of the top serving cores in the country. While we were pretty resilient in serve-receive, we were passing a lot of balls off the net, which took away our middle attack and put a lot of pressure on our pins."
Montana played well early in the match, hanging point for point with the Wildcats. The Grizzlies trailed by just one, 13-12, after getting some big plays early on, including a Moreno ace, a behind-the-back dump kill from Carly Anderson and a big solo stuff from Clark.
Montana's only lead of Set 1 came at 3-2, but kills from Howell and Semadeni during a 3-1 run forced a Wildcats timeout and put Montana with a point, 22-21. Montana then tied the score at 23-23 on a kill from Anderson, before falling 25-23.
Montana fell behind 6-2 to start the second set and never recovered. The Grizzlies had a hard time slowing down a Wildcats offense that hit .414 (14-2-29).
The third set was closer to the first for the Grizzlies, who took a 3-1 lead on back-to-back aces from Clark. After trailing 12-7, Montana got three consecutive kills to bring the score to 12-10, and then got within a point at 14-13, on a Moreno ace.
After the Grizzlies' 6-2 run, though, Weber State used a 6-1 run to extend its lead again, eventually winning the final set 25-21.
Anderson showed that she should have received more all-conference consideration and will be a force to come over the next several seasons. After leading the Big Sky for assists during the regular season, she showed her versatility on Thursday night, adding five kills (compared to zero errors), in addition to six digs and two blocks.
Despite the loss, there are reasons to feel good about the direction the program is headed.
After being picked to finish last in the preseason coaches' poll, Montana qualified for the conference tournament for a third consecutive fall – after missing the tournament in the spring and in three consecutive seasons from 2015-17. Montana's 11 wins are more than the Grizzlies posted the last two seasons combined, and their win total and win percentage was the program's best since 2013. Montana won a preseason tournament in North Dakota – its first outright title since 2006 – and had a winning record over the final five weeks of the season after a slow start to Big Sky play.
Montana also returns a large amount of its production, including five of the seven starters from Thursday's match.
"The results we saw this year are a huge testament to this team trusting the process," Lawrence said. "I'm most impressed by our ability to remain learners and to love improving and getting better week to week, regardless of the obstacle. I think that says so much about our team's toughness, so much about its leadership and so much about our seniors and upperclassmen.
"This is the most cohesive team I've had at Montana, and that doesn't happen by accident. I think the thing that strikes me the most about this group is how much the players love this program and their desire for this program to be great. They're creating something so special, and it's an honor to be part of."
Playing their final matches on Thursday were: four-year starting libero Sarina Moreno , who ranks third in school history for career digs; outside hitter Elsa Godwin, a three-year starter who has been a weapon with her arm, serve and pass; middle blocker Peyten Boutwell, a transfer who spent the past two seasons at Montana and has developed into one of the league's top blockers; Kelsey Nestegard, a serving specialist; and transfer middle blocker Holly Manchester.