Griz open season with first day of practices

Brooke Bray is a captain on this year's team

Brooke Bray is a captain on this year's team

Aug. 8, 2012

2012 Montana volleyball schedule poster Get Acrobat Reader

The Montana volleyball team opened its 2012 season Wednesday with a full day of three practices. The Grizzlies will be training in the West Auxiliary Gym 12 of the next 15 days -- with two off days and one day spent working at a local Habitat for Humanity building site -- before traveling to Moscow, Idaho, to face Washington State on Aug. 24.

With the team's photo day and season preview not scheduled until early next week, we present a primer of nine questions that should whet the appetite and bridge the gap between now and then.

Can the Montana volleyball team finally win a championship?

The Grizzlies have not finished higher than third place in the Big Sky Conference since 1994. That was also the same year Montana last played in the Big Sky tournament championship match. The rest of Montana's teams have won 56 Big Sky regular-season and tournament titles since then.

That's not really an answer, more of an observation.

If anything represents the "enough is enough" mindset of the program, point your attention to Kayla Reno, who is holding down the center of this year's schedule poster (linked above) with enough body language to fill a book.

Or listen to seventh-year coach Jerry Wagner. When asked if this team can win a championship, he answers, "We certainly can," and doesn't bother adding any qualifiers, which is totally unlike a coach.

How did the team do last year?

Montana finished 11-13 overall and in fifth place in the Big Sky Conference with a record of 8-8, one game from the postseason tournament. It was only the second time the Grizzlies did not play in the postseason in Wagner's first six seasons.

The team got off to a slow start and was sitting just 3-9 in late September. Included in that start was a 0-3 record at its own tournament and a 0-4 start to its league schedule. The final two losses of that 0-4 start in conference were five-set, stomach-punch losses at home to both Portland State and Eastern Washington.

To its credit the team responded with five wins in its next six matches and was actually in contention for a tournament spot in mid-November, until a 3-0 loss at Sacramento State on the regular season's penultimate weekend emptied any wind the team had in its sails.

How can a team with just one senior and six of its 13 roster players without a single match of experience in a Griz uniform be considered veteran?

Because of the junior class. Reno, middle blocker Brooke Bray and setter Kortney James have played significant roles in all 52 matches their first two seasons, and libero Megan Murphey has played in 41. James has started 51 matches the last two seasons, Bray 50 and Reno, who was second-team All-Big Sky as a sophomore, 34.

Where will Montana be picked to finish this season?

When the preseason coaches' poll is announced within the next week, expect Montana to be picked in the fourth- to sixth-place range. That won't be a knock on the Grizzlies but a nod toward an experienced league that does not have much of a gap between the top and the middle teams.

Who exactly is on the team?

The roster of 13 has an odd blend. Four starters (Bray, James, Reno and Kelsey Schile) plus Murphey return, as does three-year letterwinner outside hitter Paige Branstiter, the only senior on this year's team.

Six of the 13 players have not played a match in a Griz uniform. Middle blocker Janele Vogt is a transfer from North Idaho College, defensive specialist/libero Samantha Maas, who practiced with Montana last season, is a transfer from Cal Poly, and middle blocker Capri Richardson was a redshirt in 2011. The true freshmen are defensive specialist/libero Sadie Ahearn of Missoula, defensive specialist/libero Allyson Barry of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and outside hitter Gabby Crowell of Bend, Ore.

Isn't volleyball the sport that sometimes plays more than one match in a single day?

Yes. Montana will double up against Idaho and Pacific on Saturday, Aug. 25, at Idaho's tournament, San Diego State and Sacred Heart on Saturday, Sept. 1, at San Diego State's tournament and Towson and Texas Tech at the Grizzlies' own tournament on Saturday, Sept. 8.

Montana is hoping to have to double up again the day after Thanksgiving. Quarterfinals and semifinals of the Big Sky Conference tournament are both being held Friday, Nov. 23, at Greeley, Colo., with the quarterfinals in the morning and early afternoon and the semifinals in the evening.

Of course the teams that finish one-two in the regular-season standings earn a bye to the semifinals of the six-team tournament, so the Grizzlies would REALLY like to 1) make the tournament and 2) not have to play two matches in a single day.

When is the bye week?

No byes in what should be a fast (and we hope furious) season. Three early-season tournaments, three matches per, then 20 Big Sky Conference matches squeezed into a 10-week schedule.

North Dakota is the new travel partner of Northern Colorado, and Northern Arizona is now with Southern Utah. Portland State and Eastern Washington are still together, as are Idaho State and Weber State.

That leaves the Montana State and Sacramento State matches to be played roughly the same weekends. For Montana that means Monday-night matches against the Bobcats this season: Oct. 15 at Bozeman and Nov. 19 at Missoula.

How will we know this year is going to be different?

You should know a lot before your summer tan starts to fade. Montana plays nine matches at Idaho's, San Diego State's and its own tournament, and all nine of those opponents finished the 2011 season with a higher RPI than the Grizzlies.

And then there is the tough and likely telling start to the Big Sky schedule: At Northern Colorado, at North Dakota and home for Portland State and Eastern Washington. All four of those teams are likely to be picked ahead of Montana in the preseason poll. (And just because it would be fun to jinx it: Montana has not beaten Portland State since 2004.)

At that point it will be only Sept. 22 and there will still be two months left in the season, but plenty should be known.

Which Big Sky Conference team is the most easy to dislike?

As is the case of the New York Yankees or Duke, look to the top of the standings for your easy target. Nobody else is within a zip code of Northern Colorado right now on the court. The Bears were untouchable late last season -- UNC did not drop a single set at the Big Sky tournament -- and return six starters. Did we mention Montana opens its league schedule at Northern Colorado on Sept. 13? Does the TSA allow schadenfreude as a carry-on?



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