Sam Maas ranks second on the team with 100 digs (2.78/s)
Sept. 12, 2012
The Montana volleyball team will open its Big Sky Conference schedule this week when it opens league play at Northern Colorado and North Dakota. The Grizzlies will play the Bears Thursday at 7 p.m. at Greeley, Colo., and UND Saturday at 6 p.m. (MT) at Grand Forks, N.D.
Live coverage: Fans can catch both matches this week free of charge at Big Sky TV. Both opponents' websites, UNCBears.com and UNDSports.com, will be offering live stats.
The dress rehearsal is over: With the addition of North Dakota and Southern Utah to the Big Sky Conference, league teams will play 20 conference matches over the next 10 weeks. All 11 teams will be in action this weekend.
"The Big Sky Conference championship will be won by the team that can do things on the road against good teams," UM coach Jerry Wagner said, saying without saying that this is the type of road trip that helps defines a season, even if it is only just two of a 20-match schedule.
"I'm looking forward to playing every possible point (against Northern Colorado and North Dakota) with the right amount of passion and energy. I really like our team when we do that."
Preseason guesses: When the league coaches were polled in early August, they were pretty much unanimous is declaring their love, whether they wanted to or not, for Northern Colorado. The Bears won the Big Sky tournament title in 2009, the regular-season title in 2010, swept both titles a year ago and have nearly everyone back in 2012.
North Dakota was picked fourth in the preseason poll, but, given Eastern Washington's early-season turmoil and current 0-11 record, we'll take the liberty in retroactively moving UND ahead of the Eagles, who were picked third. North Dakota received one first-place vote, (content redacted).
Montana was picked fifth, which is an uncomfortable preseason position to be in when the league has a six-team postseason tournament. The tournament will be in played in Greeley the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving, courtesy of the Bears' regular-season title last fall, not by birthright, (content redacted).
What the preseason taught us: 1) That Northern Colorado is as good as expected. They have the best hitter in the league in all-around great gal Kelley Arnold, the 2011 Big Sky MVP, the best setter in Marissa Hughes and the best middle blocker in Andrea Spaustat, last season's Big Sky Outstanding Freshman. Everyone else just fills in the gaps, usually while hitting somewhere around .250.
2) This is not the North Dakota of last season. That team, which could still be called the Fighting Sioux, went 26-5 and went General Sherman on its opponents, allowing .125 hitting and dominating the block. We'd be remiss if we did not mention Montana's trip to Grand Forks last September that resulted in a 25-16, 25-18, 25-12 UND victory. Anyway, the jury is still out on this North Dakota team.
3) If the jury is still out on North Dakota, it has not even been summoned yet on Montana. Is this the team that knocked off Montana Invitational champion Towson and rattled Texas Tech and coach Don Flora ("Somebody needs to do something about this crowd! Don't you have any security?!") last Saturday night, or the team whose No. 2 middle blocker (by committee) is hitting -.048 on the season? Much will be answered Thursday and Saturday nights.
Adventures in coaching, part one: After Montana defeated Northern Colorado in Missoula last October to drop the Bears to 7-3 in league play, UNC coach Lindsey (then) Benson had a heated powwow with her team in a Montana
bathroom locker room. The tongue-lashing outlasted the custodial and sports information staffs, which are usually the last to leave the building, and likely made an unappetizing mess of the team's post-match pizza.
The result: Northern Colorado did not lose again in the month of October and went 7-0 in November, all in dominating fashion (nine matches, two dropped sets).
The verdict: Good coaching move.
Adventures in coaching, part two: After North Dakota whipped Montana last fall (see above) Montana volleyball coach Jerry Wagner awoke the next morning to a Grand Forks Herald headline of "Sioux hammer future Big Sky opponent." Certainly not a stretch considering the outcome.
But the title was only the start. Now fourth-year coach Ashley Hardee was quoted in the article as bragging, "When we come to the Big Sky next year ... we're not going to hope. We're going to go in there, compete and win that league and get that NCAA tournament bid that first year."
He had a hot team, and he knew it, but that was last year's team.
The result and verdict: We'll revisit the topic in November.
Series histories: Montana has a 1-2 record against North Dakota in a series that dates back only to 2009. Last season's 3-0 loss was the Grizzlies' first and only trip to Grand Forks.
Montana is 6-8 against Northern Colorado, with all but one meeting taking place since 2006 as Big Sky Conference opponents. The Grizzlies won at UNC's Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion in 2006, the Bears' first season in the league, but they have not approached victory in the five trips since, with three 3-1 loss and two 3-0 sweeps.
Three reasons to like Montana: 1) Coach Jerry Wagner's undying belief in his team. Even though the Grizzlies went 1-2 at home last weekend and ended up in fourth place out of four teams, he saw enough out of his team in its 3-2 comeback victory over Towson (down two sets and 23-18 in the third) to convince him he has one of the Big Sky's upper-tier teams.
"I felt it was important for us to beat a very good team last weekend, and we were able to do that," he said. "We knew we needed to develop our consistency and bring our offense up to the level that can be successful heading into an all-time highly competitive conference season."
Montana may have allowed its three opponents last weekend to hit .266, but the Grizzlies finally got locked in offensively. They hit .225 to bring their season percentage up to .169.
2) Paige Branstiter. Wagner knows what he is going to get out of junior Kayla Reno on the left side, but Branstiter, the team's only senior, hit just .024 through the team's first two tournaments. The lack of production at that spot was a key piece in the team's 1-5 start.
In three matches last weekend Branstiter averaged 3.23 kills per set on .314 hitting and earned all-tournament honors.
3) Brooke Bray. The junior middle blocker could have been Montana's all-tournament selection at all three pre-league tournaments. Instead her mantle will have to collect dust while awaiting her All-Big Sky Conference plaque to arrive later this fall.
Bray is hitting .313, fifth in the Big Sky Conference, and is leading the league at 1.47 blocks per set. Bray has hit .300 or better in five of the team's last six matches. Bray against Spaustat Thursday night is a matchup to watch.
Upcoming: Montana will host Portland State and Eastern Washington Friday and Saturday, Sept. 21-22.
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