Kortney James had 39 assists Thursday
Sept. 13, 2012
The Montana volleyball team dropped its Big Sky Conference opener Thursday night to preseason league favorite Northern Colorado in four sets at Greeley, Colo., 26-24, 21-25, 22-25, 18-25.
The Grizzlies were facing the unenviable challenge of playing the preseason favorite on the road in their league opener for the second straight season. After dropping the same match last year by the lopsided scores of 25-17, 25-14, 25-20, this was progress.
Montana split the first two sets and held a comfortable 19-15 lead in the third before the match swung in the Bears' favor. UNC scored eight of the next nine points to go up 23-20. Northern Colorado closed out the set, then breezed to a quick win in the fourth.
"My message before the match tonight had nothing to do with anything technical," said UM coach Jerry Wagner, who described himself post-match as both disappointed and encouraged. "It was all about consistency in our focus. When we do that, we can be one of the teams to beat in this league.
"When you lose your focus for even a short period of time (like at the end of the third set), you are going to pay for it against a good team."
The reason Montana was in position to challenge for the win was the play of its middle blockers. Junior Brooke Bray had 14 kills on .333 hitting, and redshirt freshman Capri Richardson had a season-high nine kills on .318 hitting, along with a team-leading four blocks.
Bray and Richardson neutralized, if not outplayed, Northern Colorado's highly touted middles. The difference in the match, then, came on the outside.
Just days after they carried the team at the Montana Invitational, the Grizzlies' outside hitters were rendered mostly quiet Thursday night. Senior Paige Branstiter and sophomore Kelsey Schile combined for 12 kills on .020 hitting. Junior Kayla Reno finished with 13 kills on .171 hitting after a slow start.
All were overshadowed by the strong play of UNC's Kelley Arnold, who put up early an statement match that she is ready to defend her Big Sky MVP award.
Arnold had 20 of Northern Colorado's 57 kills on .405 hitting and added 11 digs and four blocks.
"I thought we controlled a lot of the play tonight, but we couldn't find a way to slow down Arnold," Wagner said. "That was really the key."
Montana gave up a 6-0 run early in the opening set, but unlike most matches this season, it did not do in the Grizzlies. Tied at 24, Montana got consecutive kills from Bray and junior setter Kortney James to pull out the extra-points victory.
Arnold had four of her 20 kills in the opening set, but the rest of the Bears had just seven kills, and Montana limited Northern Colorado to .077 hitting.
UNC hit .455 in the second set to even the score, which set up the critical third set. Montana grabbed an early 5-4 lead on a Reno kill, and the Grizzlies steadily built their advantage. UNC service and attack errors allowed Montana to match its largest lead of the set, 19-15.
A pair of kills by Tambre Haddock and a Brianna Strong solo block of Bray made it 19-18 and forced Wagner to use a timeout. Schile came out of the timeout with a kill, but it did little to slow down the Bears, who were rolling at that point.
Arnold had three of her five kills in the set during the rally, and Northern Colorado raced out to a decisive 13-5 lead in the closing set.
Montana will continue its road trip with a match Saturday night at North Dakota (4-7, 0-1 BSC). UND lost its Big Sky opener at home Thursday night to Montana State in five sets.
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