Sept. 20, 2012
The Montana volleyball team will host Portland State and Eastern Washington this weekend as the Grizzlies play their first Big Sky Conference home matches of the season. Montana will face the Vikings Friday and the Eagles Saturday. Both matches start at 7 p.m. at the West Auxiliary Gym.
(Note: The video for Friday's match will start streaming on time, however the arrival of the broadcast team may be delayed based on the length of Friday's home soccer match between Montana and Idaho State at South Campus Stadium.)
At a glance: Montana and Eastern Washington both opened 0-2 in Big Sky Conference play. Weber State is the only other league team that came away winless from its opening two matches. ... Portland State is one of only three league teams that made it through their opening sets of matches unscathed. Northern Colorado and Idaho State also went 2-0. ... Montana is 2-9 overall and has played eight of its first 11 matches on the road. The Grizzlies lost at Northern Colorado in four sets last Thursday and in straight sets at North Dakota Saturday. ... Portland State is 6-7 overall and had an impressive start to its Big Sky schedule. The Vikings won in five sets at Sacramento State last Saturday, pulling out a 17-15 win in the fifth set, then rolled over Eastern Washington Monday night at Cheney, Wash., 27-25, 25-17, 25-17. ... Eastern Washington, which is 0-13, is floundering. The Eagles played their first seven matches this season without either of their two setters, and head coach Miles Kydd resigned four matches into the season. EWU has lost 10 of its 13 matches in three sets and enters Friday's match at Montana State having dropped its last 22 sets. The Eagles lost at Sac State last Thursday and at home Monday to Portland State.
An analysis of why Montana is 2-9, and how close losses can turn into close wins: Montana committed 81 errors last weekend in its losses at Northern Colorado and North Dakota. During the course of play those errors seem innocuous enough. A serve into the net here, an attack that lands just long there, but over the course of the road trip they added up to 16 more errors than the Bears and UND committed.
In other words, with their mostly unforced errors, the Grizzlies were essentially starting each set facing a 2-0 deficit that needed to be overcome offensively. A tall task for a team that ranks in the bottom third of the Big Sky Conference in kills.
Montana committed over 10 errors (a combination of attack errors, service errors, receiving errors, blocking errors and ball-handling errors) per set at Northern Colorado and more than a dozen at North Dakota. When the Grizzlies dropped the second set at UND Saturday, they giftwrapped 15 points in the form of 10 attack errors, three service errors and two receive errors. North Dakota won the set with just 10 kills of its own.
The weekend was actually a regression for the team in the area of unforced errors. Montana averaged 11.08 per set in going 0-3 at Idaho's tournament, then improved that to 7.18 and 7.46 per set while going 2-4 at San Diego State's and the Grizzlies' own tournament. Last weekend it was back up to 11.29 errors per set.
So why was Montana then in position -- ahead 19-15 in the third set after splitting the first two -- to put the Bears on the ropes last Thursday, and why did the Grizzlies drop tight 26-24 decisions in the first and third sets in Saturday's loss at North Dakota?
Because the team's offense is getting better. Montana averaged 10.35 kills per set at Idaho's and San Diego State's tournaments, 11.62 at its own tournament and 12.57 on last week's road trip.
That final number still ranks just seventh among the Big Sky teams in league play -- Idaho State is at 16.57, and three other teams are averaging over 13 -- but it's an improvement.
The easy thing to do in 26-24 losses it to say, "The other team made plays when it counted." But a 26-24 set is made up of 50 points, and not giving away points through unforced errors in the first 48 can be just as important to the outcome as the final two points, perhaps negating the need for those final points because the set has already been won 25-22.
None of the previous eight paragraphs is news to Montana coach Jerry Wagner. "My message to the team is that there are a lot of points earlier in each set that need to be played better," he says.
"We need to keep finding ways to get some better offense, and easier kills directly off serve reception is a good place to start. That's improved from where it was in our nonconference, but we still have not minimized our errors per set."
More on Portland State: The Vikings have been the best team in the Big Sky Conference the last eight seasons, finishing first or second in the final regular-season standings all eight years and playing in the tournament championship match the last five seasons.
PSU's 4-7 nonconference record may have led outsiders to conclude that the Vikings are finally losing their grip atop Mt. Big Sky, but last weekend put that speculation on hold.
On Saturday Portland State, which was picked second in the Big Sky preseason poll behind Northern Colorado, went up 2-0 at Sacramento State, then watched as the Hornets rallied back to force a fifth set. Sac State led 14-13 in the fifth, one point from the comeback victory, but after a PSU timeout the Vikings gutted out three straight points to steal the victory.
After a slow start at Cheney Monday night, Portland State hit .281 in sets two and three to cruise to the straight-sets victory.
PSU's roster, which is typically geared toward being a strong offensive team, got a big lift in the offseason with the addition of outside hitter Jaklyn Wheeler, a transfer from Oregon. Wheeler is averaging 4.17 kills per set, best in the Big Sky Conference.
The series: It's been one-sided. Portland State holds a 51-14 advantage, and Montana has not defeated the Vikings since 2004, a 16-match losing streak.
None of those losses was as galling as last year's meeting in Missoula. Montana was up 13-8 in the fifth set when a PSU timeout prompted a playing of Katie Perry's "Last Friday Night," the team's post-match victory anthem. It turned out to be an ill-fated decision. The Vikings came back to win 16-14.
More on Eastern Washington: Anybody familiar with the news accounts out of Cheney and Spokane from late August can make assumptions about why the Eagles are no longer being coached by Kydd, one of the league's top coaches during his four-plus seasons as head coach.
Just as important to the team's slow start was the loss of senior setter Laney Brown to a broken big toe in July and junior setter Lindsay Niemeier to an ACL injury in the season's first match. Brown is back as of two weeks ago, but her return has yet to result in the team's first victory under interim head coach Lisa Westlake.
The two numbers that stand out: .135 and .244. The former is Eastern Washington's hitting percentage this season, the latter what EWU's opponents are hitting. It has resulted in just three set victories all season and just one since Aug. 24.
The series: Montana leads 47-35, but the Eagles have won 28 of the last 32 meetings. The Grizzlies won at home against Eastern in 2008, 2009 and 2010, but the Eagles won in five sets -- 15-8 in the fifth -- last fall.
Tell the babysitter it's going to be a late night: The last four meetings between Montana and Eastern Washington have gone the full five sets.
Trending: Junior Kayla Reno (3.29/s) on the outside and junior Brooke Bray (3.00/s) in the middle averaged more than half of Montana's kills in last week's two matches. ... Northern Colorado and North Dakota combined to hit .270 against Montana. ... Paige Branstiter: Homebody. Branstiter in nine matches away from Missoula, 2.26 kills per set on .028 hitting. In three matches at home, 3.23 kills per set on .314 hitting. ... Montana is 31-17 in Big Sky Conference home matches under seventh-year coach Jerry Wagner. The Grizzlies have won six straight league games at the West Auxiliary Gym entering Friday's contest.
Upcoming: Montana will remain home and host Weber State and Idaho State next Friday and Saturday.
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