Megan Murphey is one of the Big Sky's top returning liberos
Aug. 13, 2012
Montana is expected to make the six-team Big Sky Conference volleyball tournament this fall, but if the Grizzlies are going to win their first regular-season title since 1994 they are going to have to surprise the league's coaches.
That was the takeaway message from the preseason coaches' poll that was released Monday.
Montana, which has made four tournaments in coach Jerry Wagner's first six seasons, was picked fifth in the poll and did not receive a first-place vote.
As expected Northern Colorado, which won both the regular-season and tournament titles in 2011 and lost just one starter, topped the poll with nine first-place votes. The Bears return last season's Big Sky Conference MVP in outside hitter Kelley Arnold and tournament MVP in setter Marissa Hughes.
Portland State, which was picked second in the poll, and North Dakota, which was picked fourth, both received one first-place vote. Eastern Washington finished third in the poll without receiving a first-place vote.
Northern Colorado topped the 2011 poll as well and delivered last fall. The Bears went a league-best 13-3 and rolled through the four-team tournament without dropping a set. UNC lost to Hawaii in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Portland State (12-4 BSC) finished second last season and met the Bears in the tournament title match. It was the third straight season Portland State and Northern Colorado played for the championship.
Rounding out last season's tournament field were third-place Sacramento State (10-6) and fourth-place Eastern Washington (9-7). Montana (8-8) finished fifth and needed only to look back at its two five-set losses to EWU as the reason the Grizzlies did not make their fourth straight tournament.
The Hornets, who lost three starters plus their libero, were picked sixth in this year's poll. Sac State was followed by Idaho State (7-9), Northern Arizona (6-10), Southern Utah, Weber State (3-13) and Montana State (4-12).
If Montana wants to make an early statement about its standing in the Big Sky, the Grizzlies will have an early opportunity in September. Montana opens its league schedule at Northern Colorado and North Dakota before returning home to host Portland State and Eastern Washington, teams the Grizzlies went 1-6 against in 2011.
The schedule is almost exactly what Montana faced last season. The Grizzlies opened at Northern Colorado, then played at Northern Arizona, which at the time was 10-0. Home matches against Portland State and Eastern Washington followed.
Montana lost in three sets at Northern Colorado and four at Northern Arizona. Back-to-back five-set losses to Portland State and Eastern Washington at home meant the 0-4 Grizzlies faced a two-month uphill battle in their chase for a tournament spot.
Montana went 5-1 in its next six matches and ended the season with home victories over Idaho State and Weber State, but the rally came up one victory short.
"As it turns out, (this year's schedule) is almost exactly the same as last year," seventh-year coach Jerry Wagner said.
"Going winless through our first two weekends in last year's nine-team setup made it so we almost had to run the table. We want to come out of it this year with something to show for it in terms of competitiveness and quality of play, and even one win puts us ahead of where we were last year."
Montana, which returns four starters and its libero, will play in three tournaments in late August and early September to prepare for its Big Sky Conference schedule. The Grizzlies will face Washington State, Idaho and Pacific at Idaho's tournament Aug. 24-25 and Utah State, San Diego State and Sacred Heart at SDSU's tournament Aug 31-Sept. 1.
Montana will host its own tournament Sept. 7-8, with the Grizzlies facing Furman, Towson and Texas Tech.
The Big Sky Conference tournament will be held at Greeley, Colo., Friday and Saturday, Nov. 23-24, with quarterfinal and semifinal matches being played Friday and the championship match Saturday.
2012 Big Sky Conference Preseason Volleyball Coaches' Poll
1. Northern Colorado (9 first-place votes) ... 99 points
2. Portland State (1) ... 88
3. Eastern Washington ... 71
4. North Dakota (1) ... 70
5. Montana ... 62
6. Sacramento State ... 61
7. Idaho State ... 48
8. Northern Arizona ... 33
9. Southern Utah ... 30
10. Weber State ... 24
11. Montana State ... 19
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