Coach Jerry Wagner
April 10, 2012
To prepare his team to open its 2012 Big Sky Conference schedule in mid-September with the league's toughest road trip, Montana volleyball coach Jerry Wagner believes he has just the formula: Play the toughest non-conference schedule his team's faced in his first six seasons coaching the Grizzlies.
Between Aug. 24 and Sept. 8, Montana will face a three-weekend gauntlet of nine matches. The challenge: Play nine teams that had a collective winning percentage last season of .587 and all finished 2011 with a higher RPI than the Grizzlies.
Montana will play tournaments at both Idaho (Aug. 24-25) and San Diego State (Aug. 31-Sept. 1) before hosting its own tournament Sept. 7-8.
"It's going to be a great challenge for us," said Wagner, who will be entering his seventh season in the fall. "Every single one of these matches is going to be a test, but we feel like we're ready to take this on."
The Grizzlies, who finished 2011 with an RPI of 207 (out of 327 NCAA Division I volleyball teams), will play the host Vandals (2011 RPI of 105), Washington State (156) and Pacific (92) at Idaho's tournament and the host Aztecs (101), Utah State (173) and Sacred Heart (75) -- an NCAA tournament team in 2011 -- at San Diego State's tournament.
Montana will face it toughest tournament matches at home, with Texas Tech, Furman and Towson traveling to Missoula. Texas Tech may have the name cachet, but it's the lesser known Paladins and Tigers who are both coming off 20-win seasons.
Furman ended 2011 with a heady RPI of 64, the highest-ranked opponent on Montana's 2012 non-conference schedule.
"Idaho's tournament turned out to be a nice cross-section of teams from the West that are very good, and San Diego State's tournament just got better and better as they sought out and added teams," Wagner said.
"Our tournament really developed into a nice situation. There is one name school (in Texas Tech), then two others that you don't hear about very often but are programs that are well thought of."
And that will just be a warm-up to Montana's first-ever 20-match Big Sky Conference schedule, the result of adding North Dakota and Southern Utah to the league.
Twenty matches, 10 weeks, few opportunities to catch your breath. The six teams left standing at the end will make the Big Sky tournament, to be held Thanksgiving weekend at Greeley, Colo.
With the possible exception of facing 2011 national semifinalists UCLA and USC on the same road trip, the Grizzlies could not face a tougher opening weekend to their league schedule: road matches at Northern Colorado and North Dakota.
The Bears went 22-9 last year and won both the Big Sky regular-season and tournament championships.
North Dakota, with an PRI of 52, is the highest-ranked opponent on Montana's 2012 schedule. The Fighting Sioux went 26-5 last year, including a 3-0 sweep of Montana at UND's early-season tournament in Grand Forks.
That performance, which came with the next-day newspaper headline "Sioux hammer future Big Sky opponent," prompted North Dakota coach Ashley Hardee to let the Grand Forks Herald in on his 2012 plans.
"When we come to the Big Sky next year ... we're not going to hope. We're going to go in there, compete and win that league and get that NCAA tournament bid that first year," he was quoted as saying.
Ten other league teams will have a say in that, including the all-of-a-sudden veteran Grizzlies.
Paige Branstiter will be the team's lone senior in 2012, but three juniors -- outside hitter Kayla Reno, middle blocker Brooke Bray and setter Kortney James -- have been starting since they were freshmen.
Freshman-to-be outside hitter Gabby Crowell joins the team ready-made to be an immediate contributor, and a second impact addition will be announced later this week.
The returners and additions will give Wagner the deepest team he's enjoyed since taking over in 2006.
Montana won't be among the teams receiving a first-place vote when the coaches' preseason poll comes out in early August, but that does not bother or deter Wagner.
When asked if the 2012 team could be his first to win a Big Sky Conference championship, he says, "Absolutely." And like Ashley Hardee's quote in the Grand Forks Herald, comments on paper are all we have to go on for now.
Let the countdown to the 2012 season commence.
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