Aug. 16, 2012
Spare parts they are not. Nor fifth wheels or practice fodder. They are the six Montana volleyball players who have yet to play a single point for the Grizzlies, and the team isn't chasing a championship in 2012 without them.
Montana has experience at every position on the court entering the season. Four starters return -- a setter, an all-conference left-side hitter, a right-side hitter and a middle blocker -- plus last season's primary libero. Add in two other returners and the Grizzlies can put enough talent on the court with just that group to beat the Southern Utahs, Montana States and Weber States of the world.
But Montana is not focused on beating the teams at the bottom of the conference. The Grizzlies have been doing that with regularity since seventh-year coach Jerry Wagner took over in 2006. Instead, to win -- or even challenge for -- its first regular-season championship since 1994, Montana needs to look up, to where the Northern Colorados and Portland States reside.
And that's where juniors Samantha Maas and Janele Vogt, redshirt freshman Capri Richardson and incoming freshmen Sadie Ahearn, Allyson Barry and Gabby Crowell come in. Without an impact from that sextet, the preseason coaches' poll that predicted a fifth-place finish for the Grizzlies is likely to be accurate.
There is only one senior among the team's seven experienced returners, but the group still has 304 matches of experience because it is buttressed by a junior class that has been on the court since the opening match of its freshman season.
Junior Kayla Reno is a second-team All-Big Sky Conference left-side hitter who last season led the team in kills (2.84/s). Junior setter Kortney James has started 51 of the team's 52 matches since 2010. And junior middle blocker Brooke Bray, who played right side her freshman season, is the team's leading returning hitter (.244).
Junior Megan Murphey, who led the team in digs as a sophomore, is back and is a candidate to give the Grizzlies their second Big Sky Libero of the Year award in three seasons. Sophomore Kelsey Schile, who took over for Bray on the right side and also played some setter in the team's early experiments with a 6-2 offense, was one of the Big Sky Conference's top freshmen last fall.
They give Montana enough to make the six-team Big Sky Conference tournament, something the Grizzlies missed out on last fall when it was a four-team event. To challenge for something more meaningful than just another tournament appearance, the new players will need to not just blend in but add something.
"The returners know what they want, and they've done a nice job of committing themselves to those goals," Wagner said.
"And I like the additions we have in every area, where they're starting off and who they have as role models for those spots. They bring us depth and are people we know we're going to be able to count on."
A minor knee injury to Schile that was slow to be accurately diagnosed kept her from being 100 percent at the start of practice, and that has made Wagner's lineup more fluid as the Grizzlies approach the one-week mark before their first match of the season, against Washington State at Idaho's tournament on Aug. 24.
If Schile is ready to go, Wagner would only need to find a second left-side hitter from among Branstiter and Crowell and a middle blocker to combine with Bray, and he would have a formidable lineup ready to roll out on the court.
Crowell is a highly-touted recruit from Bend, Ore., and was the Class 5A player of the year in Oregon as a senior after leading Summit High to the state title last November.
Reno is only going to get better and should be a Big Sky first-teamer this fall, and Branstiter continues to live and die with a swing that produces the team's most powerful attack.
"We're thin on the outside in numbers, but our potential with Kayla, Paige and Gabby isn't thin," Wagner said.
"Gabby is working through the jump she made to be able to compete at this level and play at a different tempo, but when she gets up to speed we're going to have a great corps of powerful, focused left-side hitters."
Schile's health status -- and it is mostly a conditioning issue at this point, no longer an injury issue -- will dictate options for other players. Branstiter is a right-side option, but that would force Crowell to get her experience in-match, and that's not always the best tack.
"It will depend on how long (in a match) Kelsey's conditioning allows her to play at the level we need her to play at," Wagner said.
Wagner has three options behind Bray in the middle: Vogt, a transfer from North Idaho College, Richardson, who showed she wasn't just going through the redshirt motions last fall when she ably stepped in for the graduated Brittany Quick during the team's spring season, and Jones.
"Capri carried those spring improvements through the summer and is having a really nice (fall) camp," Wagner said. "Offensively she really seems to be tough on opponents, and she's becoming one of our better blockers as well."
Vogt was called up to the big leagues after spending two years in the minors. In exchange for Vogt, Wagner sent Kaitlyn Molloy, who played sparingly for the Grizzlies last fall, down to North Idaho, where she will play for former Griz assistant Kandice Gregorak.
Vogt can play either the middle or right side and may be an option in the latter if Schile is not 100 percent the opening weekend, when Montana will face a tough tournament field of Washington State, Idaho and Pacific.
"Janele has a skill set for the middle that really adds to our corps there, and she also has a skill set that would allow us to play her on the right side as well," said Wagner.
Montana finished in the bottom third of the Big Sky Conference last fall in digs, so it makes sense that Wagner, who is big on ball control, has in three of his new players defensive specialists who can 1) cover ground, 2) dig balls and 3) drop their passes on James' head, just what a setter and coach want.
Molloy was Wagner's situational substitution last season. This year he has a more proven product in Maas, who spent two seasons at Cal Poly before transferring to Montana. She practiced with the team last year and has two years of eligibility remaining.
"I'm really happy the direction our ball-handling is taking. Megan is really refining that position for us, and Sam brings great determination to that spot," Wagner said. "That gives us two solid liberos right from the start."
To add even more depth to his group of ball-handlers, Wagner brought in Allyson Barry, of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Sadie Ahearn, of Missoula. Barry's former club team, Sports Shack, could join the Big Sky Conference and make the tournament this fall, so she immediately will be up for the challenge of digging anything the league's top hitters throw at her.
"Ally and Sadie have great role models in that position. They give us a couple of specialists if we ever went beyond Megan and Sam in a game. They might come in and serve an area or dig a spot to help us turn a game," Wagner said.
Of course successful teams are more than just a number of disparate parts. It requires a string of connections that is beautifully simple when it's all working right: A good block slows down the other team's attack and makes ball-control in the back row easier. That leads to better passing to the setter, which results in better sets, which ultimately should create higher hitting percentages.
Good serving gets the other team on its heels right from the start and doesn't allow it to mount a solid attack in the first place. And good serve reception on your side neutralizes that threat from the other team.
Statistically Montana had no business challenging for one of the four Big Sky Conference tournament spots last fall. That the Grizzlies were a handful of points from snagging the final spot is a good indicator that something beyond the numbers was working.
But about those numbers.
Wagner's goal for the team -- and this hasn't changed since 2006 and the day he was hired -- is to hit .225. The middles should hit close to .300, the outside hitters right at .200. The Grizzlies hit just .181 last season and better than .225 just six times in 24 matches.
The team's middles, Quick and Bray, hit well last season at .259 and .244, but the left-side hitters combined to hit less than .150, and that brought down the team's overall hitting percentage.
Of course a team can get by without hitting .200 or even close to it, but every other area of that team's game needs to be rock solid.
In 16 conference matches last fall, Sacramento State hit a meager .175, well below Northern Colorado's league-leading .247, but the Hornets made the tournament because they were the Big Sky's top defensive and serving team. They led the league in both blocking and digs and limited their league opponents to .129 hitting. Northern Colorado was next closest at .160.
So different approaches can work, but only to a certain degree. A team that hits .175 may make the Big Sky tournament, but it isn't going to challenge for a regular-season championship, and that's what every team is dreaming about today.
In its first season without Jaimie Thibeault, Montana was out-blocked as a team in 2011 for the first time under Wagner, and the Grizzlies finished eighth out of nine teams in digs and last in service aces during league play ... and did we mention Montana was one win (fifth set: Montana 13, Portland State 7; final score: PSU 16, UM 14) from making the tournament?
Griz volleyball fans will once again this fall be hearing the familiar names of Reno, Bray, James, Schile and Murphey, and those names are enough to get Montana back to the tournament. But if the Grizzlies want more than that, new names will need to become household.
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