Griz face another stern tournament test
Aug. 30, 2012
The Montana volleyball team will play its second of three pre-Big Sky Conference tournaments this weekend when the Grizzlies travel to San Diego, Calif., for San Diego State's Holiday Inn Mission Valley Aztec Challenge.
Montana will play Utah State Friday at 6 p.m. (MT), then on Saturday face San Diego State at 1 p.m. (MT) and Sacred Heart at 6 p.m. (MT).
If you can't make it to San Diego: Fans of the Montana volleyball team who don't travel will get their first opportunity to see the Grizzlies in action this season. San Diego State will have a free video broadcast of all six tournament matches this weekend. Live stats will also be available. Both services can be accessed at GoAztecs.com.
Out of the frying pan ... : One week after facing a tough field -- Washington State, Idaho and Pacific -- at Idaho's tournament, Montana will face an even tougher threesome at San Diego State's tournament.
Utah State is 3-1 and only a 16-14 fifth-set defeat at the hands of Utah from being unbeaten. San Diego State is 2-0, with a five-set victory last Saturday over No. 17 California. Sacred Heart is 1-2 to open the season, but the Pioneers are coming off a 27-win season that ended last December when they won a set against Stanford in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
"This really is what we need to do," seventh-year coach Jerry Wagner said about his pre-league schedule. "If we're going to have continued success when we get into our Big Sky Conference schedule, we're going to have to mold ourselves into a team that can go anyplace against extremely good teams and find a way to win.
"That's the only way we're going to reach our ultimate goal, and these are teams we can actually measure that against. If you can face teams that are comparable to or better than what you're going to be facing in the Big Sky, why wouldn't you?"
What Montana has done: The Grizzlies opened the season last weekend with three losses at the Idaho Nike Invitational but got increasingly more competitive as the tournament progressed. Montana lost in three sets to Washington State while hitting .057, in four sets to Idaho while hitting .080 and in five sets to Pacific while hitting .136.
The Grizzlies held a 2-0 lead on Pacific, which won the tournament with a 3-0 record.
"We played three very good teams, and in each match we got one set closer to where we want to be," Wagner said. "It was just a story of certain parts of our game not all being there at the same time.
"The closer they got to being there on a consistent basis, the better and better we played, and that consistency is only going to grow."
The turnaround: The storyline for Montana last weekend was how the Grizzlies were able to drop their first two matches while hitting a combined .071, then after less than an hour of downtime push tournament champion Pacific.
And not just push the Tigers, but hold a 16-14 lead in the third set, already up 2-0. In the end it was weary legs and too much Gabby Cowden. The tournament MVP finished with 26 kills on .356 hitting.
"I'm hoping it's something (the players) are learning they have to bring out in themselves," Wagner said about his team's inspired play against Pacific.
"They had a chance to regroup (between matches), and they said, `Let's keep doing what we're supposed to do and break through this.'
"We're finding out firsthand what it's going to take. It's going to take a real strong group of players that finds itself up against it and keeps chipping away."
The reason Montana was in a position to win wasn't the opponent. It was itself. The Grizzlies had 23 attack errors in three sets against Washington State and 31 more against Idaho.
Against Pacific Montana had five first-set errors and hit .316. In the second it had just three while hitting .275.
"We need to stay aggressive in our play, but we need to make fewer errors across the board that give our opponents an inordinate amount of points," Wagner said.
"We can't hit ball out of bounds after we've created with our passing what we wanted to create."
Reno named all-tournament: Junior outside hitter Kayla Reno was named to the Idaho Nike Invitational all-tournament team. She finished with a 32 kills in three matches, an average of 2.67 per set, and led the team with 49 digs (4.08/s).
More on Utah State: The Aggies went 12-17 a year ago and finished tied for fourth in the WAC at 7-7. ... Utah State returned five starters this fall and was picked fourth in the preseason WAC poll. ... Among the Aggies' wins last weekend: 3-0 over Portland and Weber State and 3-1 over Southern Utah. ... Utah State limited its four opponents last weekend to .110 hitting while hitting .202 itself. The Aggies had a notable advantage over their opponents in both digs and blocks.
History: Montana holds an 8-7 edge in a series that dates back to 1979. Fourteen of the previous 15 matches came prior to 1994. The most recent was a 3-1 Utah State win at Montana's tournament in 2010.
More on San Diego State: The Aztecs went 18-10 last season and finished second in the Mountain West Conference at 10-4. ... SDSU was picked second in this year's preseason coaches' poll, trailing only heavy favorite Colorado State. ... San Diego State has a loaded roster. The Aztecs returned five starters, plus their libero, and added transfers from UC Santa Barbara, Arizona and Hawaii. ... San Diego State hit .279 in its two wins last weekend, which opened with a 3-0 home-court victory over Delaware.
History: The teams' only other meeting was at San Diego State's tournament in 1984. That match was a 3-0 Aztec victory.
More on Sacred Heart: The Pioneers went 27-7 last year and shared the Northeast Conference title with LIU Brooklyn at 14-2. ... Sacred Heart was a unanimous pick to win the Northeast Conference this fall despite losing last year's NEC Libero of the Year and a first-team All-NEC selection. ... The Pioneers' second-set victory against Stanford in the NCAA tournament last December was the first time a team from the Northeast Conference won a set in an NCAA tournament match. ... Sacred Heart has been out-blocked this fall, 30-4.
History: Saturday will be the first meeting between Montana and Sacred Heart.
Upcoming: Montana will host the four-team Best Western Grant Creek Inn Invitational next weekend at the West Auxiliary Gym. The visiting teams will be Towson, Furman and Texas Tech.
The Grizzlies will open their 20-match Big Sky Conference schedule with matches at Northern Colorado and North Dakota on Thursday and Saturday, Sept. 13 and 15.
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