Natalie Jones ranks third in the Big Sky in blocks
Sept. 18, 2013
The Montana volleyball team makes its home debut and opens Big Sky Conference play this weekend when it hosts Northern Colorado and North Dakota. The Grizzlies will play the Bears on Friday and UND on Saturday. Both matches start at 7 p.m. at the West Auxiliary Gym.
North Dakota opens its weekend Friday with a match at Montana State. Northern Colorado will play at Montana State on Saturday.
Coverage: This weekend's matches can be tracked by live stats and live video. Links to both services can be found on the volleyball schedule page at GoGriz.com. The video will not have a play-by-play presence, only the public address announcer.
* Montana is coming off its first in-season tournament championship since 2005 with its title at Texas Tech's Lone Star Showdown last weekend in Lubbock, Texas.
* Northern Colorado is the Big Sky's it program at the moment. The Bears have played in the Big Sky tournament championship match the last four years and has claimed the trophy three times, including the last two. UNC shared the Big Sky regular-season title in 2010 and won it outright in 2011, which is why the Bears hosted the 2012 tournament.
* North Dakota has been having its way with Montana recently. UND has won the last three meetings, all in 3-0 sweeps.
* Montana was picked dead last in the preseason coaches' poll. Northern Colorado was picked third, North Dakota fourth. Most of the Grizzlies took issue with the results of the poll and would like to send the rest of the Big Sky an early message.
* The Grizzlies tied for last in the Big Sky in 2012 with Weber State. Partly to blame: A slow start -- with losses at Northern Colorado and North Dakota to open the league schedule, followed by a stomach-punch five-set loss at home to Portland State. One weekend later: Back-to-back five-set losses to Weber State and Idaho State, and the season spiraled downward from there.
"Coming off a tournament in which we did well certainly has us eager to do that again at home," UM coach Jerry Wagner said. "That's a different feeling than we've been able to build off of in previous preseasons.
"We're excited to bring a good representation of ourselves to the home crowd. I think it's put a hop in everyone's step."
How Montana went from 1-5 to Lone Star Showdown champions: It's an easy answer. Defense.
The Grizzlies allowed their first six opponents -- at Virginia and Washington State's tournaments -- to hit .272. A team will win one every six matches, if not less often than that, giving up that kind of percentage. Last weekend at Lubbock, Texas Tech, Cal State Fullerton and Nevada hit .128.
At the same time, Montana went from hitting .210 through its first six matches to .193 last weekend. A bit of a drop-off, but still a winning number when your opponents are hitting over 60 points less.
Montana pulled it off by having a dominating presence at the net. The Grizzlies out-blocked all three opponents and finished the weekend with a 35-21 advantage. Montana also out-dug its three opponents by six, quite a feat when a team also has such a blocking presence.
"The swing in hitting percentage was very big. Actually it was huge," Wagner said. "It really made me feel good about the direction our defense and offense are taking."
Montana's season-long blocking has it tied with North Dakota atop the Big Sky statistics. And while UND is sitting seventh in digs, the Grizzlies rank high in that category as well at third, a winning combination. In other words, if the Griz don't block you, they'll dig you.
Montana is also in the top half of the Big Sky in hitting percentage, a rare standing for the Grizzlies, who have a history under Wagner of defending well but not always hitting with the Big Sky's top teams.
"The big thing going into this season was that we needed to play better offense, and from the opening weekend I've seen that steadily coming along," Wagner said.
"I knew we had a solid core, and now that solid core has depth behind it. We're really coming into our own in each phase of the game, but the big thing has been bringing the offense along. I think it can be the hallmark of what we can come to expect from this group going forward."
Around the Big Sky Conference: Only two teams -- Northern Arizona at 6-3 and Idaho State at 6-5 -- made it through their pre-league schedules with winning records, but nine of the 11 teams picked up at least three wins.
This week's schedule:
Thursday: SAC at EWU, WSU at SUU, ISU at NAU
Friday: UNC at UM; UND at MSU
Saturday: UND at UM, UNC at MSU, ISU at SUU, SAC at PSU, WSU at NAU
More on Northern Colorado: The Bears went 4-5 in its pre-league schedule. Since opening the season with home wins over Cal Poly and Baylor, UNC has gone 2-5. ... Northern Colorado suffered the heaviest personnel losses in the Big Sky after last season's 24-win campaign. Gone are three-time first-team All-Big Sky selection Kelley Arnold and Marissa Hughes, one of the top setters in the league over the last few years. ... Key returners include junior middle blocker Brianna Strong, who led the Big Sky in hitting last season (.370) and junior middle blocker Andrea Spaustat, who ranked fourth. ... This is a surprise: Usually one of the top hitting teams in the Big Sky, the Bears are hitting .153 through its first nine matches. ... Ninth-year UNC coach Lyndsey Oates is a two-time Big Sky Conference coach of the year.
History: Montana has a 7-9 record against Northern Colorado in a series that dates back to only 2004. The Grizzlies are 6-1 against the Bears in Missoula.
More on North Dakota: UND returned all six starters plus its libero from last year's team that went 10-10 in its first time through the Big Sky Conference schedule and made the postseason tournament. ... The lone common opponent for North Dakota and Montana this year: South Dakota. USD defeated the Grizzlies in five sets at Washington State's tournament. The Coyotes defeated UND on Monday in Vermillion, S.D., in four sets. ... Saturday's match will pit two of the Big Sky's top defensive teams against one another. North Dakota has the offensive edge with a .241 team hitting percentage for the season. ... UND had a rough start to the season, opening 1-6, which included a 0-4 trip to Middle Tennessee State's tournament. North Dakota bounced back and went 3-0 at Tulane's tournament last weekend before seeing its three-match winning streak come to an end Monday at South Dakota. ... Who to watch for: senior middle blocker Lisa Parlich, who is averaging 3.12 kills on .424 hitting to go along with 1.10 blocks.
History: Montana's volleyball history with North Dakota dates back only to 2009, when the then Fighting Sioux traveled to Missoula for the Grizzlies' tournament. Montana won that meeting in five sets. UND returned to UM's 2010 tournament and also won in five. North Dakota has recorded 3-0 victories the last three meetings.
More on Montana: Senior middle blocker Brooke Bray, second-team All-Big Sky last season, is back at it. She ranks fifth in the Big Sky in hitting (.311) and second in blocks (1.22/s). ... Redshirt junior middle blocker Natalie Jones ranks third in blocks (1.19/s). ... Senior outside hitter Kayla Reno made the all-tournament team at all three of Montana's pre-league tournaments. She leads the Grizzlies in kills (3.06/s) and ranks second in digs (2.61/s). ... Through its first six matches Montana recorded 20 services aces to its opponents' 44. In three matches last weekend the Grizzlies had nine, their opponents had eight.
Upcoming: Montana will face its first Big Sky Conference road trip next week when the Grizzlies play at Portland State and Eastern Washington.
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