Brooke Bray continues to lead the Big Sky in blocking
Sept. 27, 2012
The Montana volleyball team will conclude its four-match homestand this weekend when it hosts Weber State and Idaho State at the West Auxiliary Gym. The Grizzlies will host the Wildcats Friday and the Bengals Saturday. Both matches begin at 7 p.m.
Weber State (6-9, 0-4 BSC) is tied for last with Eastern Washington, and Idaho State (10-3, 4-0 BSC) is tied for first with Portland State.
Live coverage: Fans not able to make it to this weekend's home matches can track the action via live stats or enjoy free video coverage at Big Sky TV. Links to both services can be found on the volleyball schedule page at GoGriz.com.
The on-air team of Shaun Radley and Nate Michael, recent founders of the Michael Seemann Fan Club, will be on the broadcast.
Most recently: Montana opened its homestand last weekend with a split of Portland State and Eastern Washington. The Grizzlies won two of the first three sets against the Vikings on Friday and held a four-point lead in the fifth set, but PSU rallied to knock off Montana for the 17th straight time, 3-2.
The Grizzlies rebounded with a 3-0 sweep of the winless Eagles on Saturday. The Grizzlies, who have not won back-to-back matches this year, hit a season-best .275 and limited EWU to .059, -.025 in sets two and three.
Weber State opened league play 0-4 despite playing its first four matches at home. Through four Big Sky matches the Wildcats are hitting an anemic .109 while allowing their opponents to hit .299.
The Wildcats lost in five sets to North Dakota last Thursday and in three sets to Northern Colorado on Saturday.
Idaho State beat those same opponents last weekend to extend its winning streak to nine matches. The Bengals, who are hitting a league-leading .264 this season, came back from a 2-0 deficit to surprise Northern Colorado on Friday, then beat UND in four sets on Saturday.
Home and away: Montana has won seven of its last eight Big Sky Conference matches at the West Auxiliary Gym. The Grizzlies won their final six league home matches last fall, then opened with a home split last weekend.
Weber State and Idaho State were both on the road the first three weekends of the season before playing their first four league matches at home, and both teams had some success.
The Wildcats went 6-5 away from home and dropped just two sets in winning four matches and the title at Southeastern Louisiana's tournament.
The Bengals went 6-3 away from home and won St. John's tournament while dropping just a single set.
At a glance: Weber State is in its second year under coach Tom Peterson, the former BYU men's volleyball coach who led the Cougars to the 2004 NCAA championship, then resigned in 2006 after NCAA accusations of violations ultimately led to a three-year probation for the program.
UM coach Jerry Wagner says fans at Friday's match will see the first of two contrasting styles of play this weekend.
"Weber State is going to be very aggressive in its serving, blocking and hitting," he said. "They are going to throw everything at you."
That aggressiveness has yet to produce tangible results. The Wildcats are 9-35 in the early going under Peterson, 3-17 in league matches.
Idaho State, which opens its weekend at Montana State Friday night, is the surprise of the conference, though the Bengals have yet to play a Big Sky road game.
ISU is hitting a robust .264 for the season, the best mark in the Big Sky, and has pair of five-set losses among its three defeats this season.
"We need to build on what we just did last weekend, and that's to play very hard, very consistently for the entire weekend," Wagner said.
"The two teams we're facing will have contrasting styles in how they go about playing the game, and that's something we'll be prepared for. If we stay hungry, I think we can find a way to get back into the (Big Sky) race by the end of the weekend."
Series histories: Montana leads its series against Idaho State, 41-28, with a 22-9 advantage at home. The Grizzlies have gone 5-1 at home against the Bengals under seventh-year coach Wagner.
Montana is 44-26 against Weber State, with wins in the teams' last six meetings. The Grizzlies are 25-7 at home against the Wildcats, 4-2 under Wagner.
Around the Big Sky Conference: Three Big Sky matches will be played Thursday night, highlighted by Northern Arizona (10-2, 2-1 BSC) playing at Portland State (8-7, 4-0 BSC). The league will have three matches Friday and four Saturday.
Through two weekends, only Idaho State and Portland State are without a loss.
Introducing Gabby Crowell: With senior outside hitter Paige Branstiter sidelined for at least this weekend with a high ankle sprain, freshman Gabby Crowell of Bend, Ore., will be given her first extended opportunity of the season.
The Oregon Class 5A player of the year last fall as a senior at Summit High, Crowell has been on the floor from time to time this season, enough to take 45 swings and show herself as one of the team's top servers.
With only three left-side hitters on the roster (Branstiter and Crowell, plus junior Kayla Reno), Crowell won't be seeing just spot duty this weekend.
"Gabby is capable of hitting a nice percentage, and when she has been in there she has certainly brought a serving presence," Wagner said.
"Once she gets her feet underneath her, she'll be fine. She's done it before, and she has had enough time on the court this season to do it again."
Second middle spot still a question mark: Junior middle blocker Brooke Bray is playing at an All-Big Sky Conference level. The second middle blocker position is still being rotated between sophomore Natalie Jones and redshirt freshman Capri Richardson.
Richardson played the entire match against Portland State Friday and hit .300 on limited attempts and added six blocks. Jones played against Eastern Washington and had five blocks but provided little threat offensively.
Richardson is averaging 1.07 blocks this season while playing 30 of the team's 51 sets. She has hit .279 the last four matches. Jones provides a similar blocking presence but is hitting a negative percentage (-.100) for the season.
Wagner remains open to the continued use of both. "We're getting a little bit more out of our second middle spot (than earlier in the season) in either blocking or hitting efficiency from night to night," he said.
"We've got a nice competition going to see who can bring the most on a particular night to that position."
The dynamic duo: Where Montana has no issues is Reno on the left side and Bray in the middle. The pair has been tremendous the entire season.
Bray is hitting .333 for the season. That percentage ranks third in the Big Sky Conference and would be the second-best single-season hitting percentage in program history. Bray's blocks average of 1.37 leads the Big Sky.
Bray is hitting .368 through four Big Sky matches and has hit below .200 just twice all season. She put up crazy numbers of 25 kills and just two errors on 52 swings in last weekend's two matches to hit .442.
Reno has been picking up her offensive numbers as the season has gone along. She is averaging 3.67 kills per set through four league matches, which ranks seventh in the Big Sky, and is hitting .231, a solid percentage for a left-side hitter.
Last weekend Reno averaged 4.00 kills on .276 hitting, and she ranks second on the team in league play in digs at 2.87 per set.
"Brooke and Kayla are two players who are very comfortable bringing a high effort level all the time," Wagner said. "They are high energy and they're as focused and consistent as anyone we've gone up against this season.
"They stick to our plan and get better as the match goes along and are really leading the way with what they do and how they go about it."
Upcoming: Montana will play at Southern Utah and Northern Arizona next Thursday and Saturday.
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