No break for battle-tested volleyball team
The Montana volleyball team will play its final pre-league tournament this weekend when the Grizzlies host the four-team, two-day, six-match Best Western Grant Creek Inn Invitational. Montana will host Furman, Towson and Texas Tech at the tournament.
The schedule: The round-robin schedule starts Friday when Texas Tech faces Towson at 4:30 p.m. That match will be followed by Montana and Furman at 7 p.m.
There will be four matches Saturday, beginning with Furman and Texas Tech at 10 a.m. That match will be followed by Montana and Towson at noon, Towson and Furman at 4:30 p.m. and Montana and Texas Tech at 7 p.m.
All six tournament matches will be played in the West Auxiliary Gym of the Adams Center.
Coverage: All six tournament matches can be tracked via live stats and live video. Links to both services for each match are available on the Montana volleyball schedule page at GoGriz.com. The award-winning team of Shaun Radley and Nate Michael will be on the broadcast for the three Montana matches.
Who's in charge of scheduling? Montana has already received attention for its tough schedule through two weekends. This weekend? The Grizzlies welcome three teams with a combined record of 22-3.
"This is who we've been playing, so we should be used to gearing up for this level of opponent," UM coach Jerry Wagner said.
"We're getting better at gearing ourselves up, both physically and mentally, for the challenges that we decided to take on this preseason. It will be to our benefit, because we know the challenges will be equal to this or better once we get to conference."
Speaking of conference: Montana will open its Big Sky Conference schedule next week on the road at preseason heavyweight favorite Northern Colorado and light heavyweight North Dakota. The Grizzlies will play the Bears next Thursday at Greeley, Colo., and UND next Saturday at Grand Forks, N.D.
Those will be the first two of Montana's 20-match league schedule.
At a glance: Montana enters this weekend's tournament with a record of 1-5. The Grizzlies went 0-3 at Idaho's tournament two weekends ago, then placed third out of four teams last weekend at San Diego State's tournament. Montana defeated Sacred Heart in straight sets last Saturday night to pick up its first win of the season.
Furman is 7-1 and hasn't lost since dropping a straight-set decision to UC Davis in the Paladins' second match of the season. Furman hosted and beat Clemson Tuesday night to hand the Tigers their first loss of the season.
Towson, which still brings to mind the name Pat Kennedy to many Montana fans, and not in a good way, is 6-2. The Tigers got off to a 5-0 start, then lost to Virginia Tech and Middle Tennessee State last weekend at Tech's tournament before beating Harvard.
Texas Tech is 8-0, with four-match sweeps at both Boston College's tournament to open the season and the Red Raiders' own tournament last weekend. Only Boston College had enough to take Texas Tech, which has seven players 6-feet or taller, to five sets.
What does Wagner expect to see from his team this weekend? "I'm looking for a real breakout in terms of our enthusiasm and fighting spirit. A real elevated level of determination," he said.
History: Montana will be facing Furman and Towson for the first time in program history. ... Montana has a 2-1 record against Texas Tech. The Grizzlies defeated the Red Raiders 2-1 at BYU's tournament in 1980 and 3-2 at Tech's own tournament in 1993. TTU picked up its win in 1988, 3-1, at Long Beach State's tournament.
Last weekend: Montana went 1-2 at San Diego State's tournament to finish third out of four teams. SDSU, at 3-0, won the tournament, followed by Utah State (2-1), Montana (1-2) and Sacred Heart (3-0).
The Grizzlies lost to Utah State last Friday night, 3-2, their second straight five-set loss, then fell to the host Aztecs in straight sets Saturday afternoon. Montana rebounded with a surprisingly dominant 3-0 win Saturday evening over Sacred Heart.
Some historical items of note from the tournament: San Diego State hit .438 in its 3-0 win over Montana. It was the highest opponent hitting percentage allowed by the Grizzlies since Nevada hit .450 against Montana early in the 2004 season. ... Montana had 23.0 team blocks in just three sets against Sacred Heart, a program record for a three-set match. It was the fourth-most in program history, regardless of match length, and the most in any match since 1994. ... Junior Brooke Bray and sophomore Kelsey Schile, both with 12 blocks, and redshirt freshman Capri Richardson, with 10, all had career nights at the net. ... Because of its effort at the net, Montana limited Sacred Heart to -.034 hitting. It was the first time the Grizzlies defended an opponent to a negative hitting percentage since limiting Gonzaga to -.012 in 2000.
What to watch for
On the left side ... Kayla Reno is playing like a first-team All-Big Sky Conference selection. In three matches last weekend the junior averaged 3.00 kills per set on healthy .269 hitting to earn all-tournament honors. She had just five attack errors on 104 swings in three matches.
Backing her up in the long run is either going to be senior Paige Branstiter or freshman Gabby Crowell. Both will have an opportunity this weekend to show Wagner they are the player he needs for the Big Sky Conference portion of the team's schedule.
Branstiter is averaging 2.30 kills, but she has an anemic .024 hitting percentage. Crowell played well last Saturday against San Diego State and Sacred Heart, and her serving was one of the keys to Montana's big blocking effort against the Pioneers.
"Gabby brought an aggressive serving approach last weekend that the team needs to have, and it carried over to everyone else," Wagner said.
"Her added ability to score in the frontcourt puts her in position to provide some competition for our second outside hitter position."
In the middle ... junior Brooke Bray is also playing at an all-conference -- and dare we suggest a Thibeault-like -- level. She is hitting .287, best on the team and ninth in the Big Sky Conference, and her blocks average of 1.74 per set leads the league by a wide margin.
Both are hitting a negative percentage for the season, unacceptable for any player but especially a middle blocker. Richardson has 19 blocks to Jones' four through six matches this season.
Richardson's match against Sacred Heart, 10 blocks and four kills on .375 hitting, would appear to give her the edge, but like the outside hitter spot, both will have opportunities this weekend to prove it.
When pressed, Wagner wouldn't commit beyond saying, "It just so happened that Capri was out there when things got better (against Sacred Heart)."
The wild card could be ... junior Janele Vogt. She is finally cleared to play after transferring from North Idaho College, though don't expect a big role from the player who can play either the middle or right side.
"Janele could come in and allow us to get out of some rotations if we thought that would help," Wagner said.
So the tournament in a nutshell ... is that Montana is still working through personnel issues prior to the start of Big Sky Conference play next weekend, and the Grizzlies will be doing it while facing three very good teams.
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