Oct. 3, 2012
The Montana volleyball team will be on the road for the first time in three weeks when its faces Southern Utah and Northern Arizona later this week. The Grizzlies will face the Thunderbirds Thursday at 7 p.m. in Cedar City, Utah, and the Lumberjacks Saturday at 8:30 p.m. (MT) in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Where they stand: Montana is 3-12 overall and tied for eighth in the Big Sky Conference standings at 1-5. ... Southern Utah is 7-10 overall and tied for sixth in the Big Sky at 3-3. ... Northern Arizona is tied with Northern Colorado for the Big Sky's best overall winning percentage at 12-3 and is tied for fourth in the league standings at 4-2.
Around the Big Sky Conference: Only three weeks of league matches have been played, and there are seven still to go, but Portland State (10-7, 6-0 BSC), Northern Colorado (12-3, 5-1 BSC) and Idaho State (11-4, 5-1 BSC) have made early statements that they intend to pull away from the masses.
Northern Arizona, Montana State (10-4, 4-2 BSC), North Dakota (7-9, 3-3 BSC) and Southern Utah are all .500 or better in league play and have at least a two-match lead on the bottom four teams in the chase for the still-way-off six-team conference tournament.
Montana and coach Jerry Wagner are part of the group currently looking up the standings, but he's quick to point out that less than a third of the schedule has been played, and the Grizzlies have yet to face four of the league teams.
"We're less than a third of the way through the season, so we're not going to be discouraged that we've had some setbacks," he said.
"We're playing at a higher level lately and continue to put ourselves in position to win time and time again. Those are situations that we have created for ourselves, and right now that's more critical than anything.
"We're not happy with our record, but we wouldn't be satisfied if we were 5-1, either, if it meant we weren't going to improve anymore."
This week's non-Montana matches to watch: Northern Colorado plays at Portland State Thursday night. The Bears and Vikings have met in the last three Big Sky tournament championship matches. North Dakota, one of the other preseason league favorites, also plays at PSU Saturday night.
So close, with nothing in the standings to show for it: Montana went 1-3 on its recent four-match home stand but was keep-you-up-at-night close to pulling off something much more successful. All three losses came in five sets, all after the Grizzlies held late fifth-set leads.
Against Portland State on Sept. 21, Montana won two of the first three sets and held leads of 6-2 and 12-10 in the fifth set before losing 15-13. The Vikings faced a 13-7 fifth-set deficit in their match at Missoula the year before and came away with a 16-14 win.
Both of last weekend's matches against Weber State and Idaho State came down to fifth sets. Friday against the Wildcats the Grizzlies won 25-17 in the fourth set to forth a fifth. In the decisive set, Montana led 9-7 and was tied with WSU 13-13 before falling 15-13.
On Saturday against the Bengals the Grizzlies won the first two sets before ISU won sets three and four. Montana went up 9-8 in the fifth set on a kill by junior Brooke Bray, but that would be UM's final lead of the match. The fifth-set score was 15-12.
The good news: Montana played mostly even with the Big Sky's top teams. Portland State and Idaho State are a combined 11-1 in league matches.
Home and away: Montana is 1-7 this year in matches away from Missoula. The Grizzlies' lone win came in a neutral-site match against Sacred Heart at San Diego State's tournament. In Montana's first two Big Sky road matches, the Grizzlies lost in four sets at Northern Colorado and three sets at North Dakota.
Southern Utah is 2-1 at home this fall. The Thunderbirds beat Utah Valley in straight sets and Sacramento State, 3-1, and lost to Northern Arizona, 3-1. SUU is averaging an impressive 1,106 fans for its home matches.
Northern Arizona is the most road-weary team in America. The Lumberjacks have played just one match at home this fall, which makes the Lumberjacks' 12-3 record all the more impressive. NAU played pre-conference tournaments at UNLV, Colorado and California, then played five of its first six Big Sky matches on the road. The team's only home match, against Sacramento State, was a 3-1 victory.
More on Southern Utah: The Thunderbirds, who went just 11-20 a year ago, have been a slight surprise in 2012. Picked ninth in the preseason coaches' poll, SUU is off to a 3-3 Big Sky start, with two of those wins coming on the road, against Weber State and Eastern Washington.
Senior outside hitter Analaine Mailoto is getting a bulk of the team's sets and ranks second in the Big Sky in kills at 4.03. She is averaging 4.33 kills in league matches.
The Thunderbirds' best road win came last week at Eastern Washington. After dropping sets two and three by the ugly scores of 25-16 and 25-17, SUU came back to win sets four and five on .380 hitting. Mailoto had 25 kills in the match on .262 hitting.
First timers: When Montana plays at Southern Utah Thursday, the volleyball team will be the first of the Griz programs to play the first-year member of the Big Sky Conference.
Series history: Montana and Southern Utah have met just once previously. The Grizzlies defeated the Thunderbirds in five sets last fall at North Dakota's tournament, 25-21, 25-17, 16-25, 23-25, 15-11.
More on Northern Arizona: The Lumberjacks are hoping to avoid a repeat of last fall when they opened the season 13-1 and finished 15-10 to shockingly miss out on the Big Sky tournament. Considering almost all of this season's success has come on the road, the team's 2012 12-3 start is probably more impressive than last season's.
NAU is winning because it is solid both offensively and defensively. Northern Arizona is hitting .243 for the season, second in the league only to Idaho State's .253, and is limiting its opponents to .169 hitting. That comes from both blocking and digging. The Lumberjacks rank second in the former and third in the latter.
NAU's two league losses have come against two of the three teams above it in the standings. The Lumberjacks lost in four sets at Idaho State in their Big Sky opener and lost last Thursday in straight sets at Portland State. Northern Arizona has league road wins at Weber State, 3-0, Southern Utah, 3-1, and Eastern Washington, 3-1.
Series history: Montana leads the all-time series with Northern Arizona, 32-23, with an above-.500 record at Flagstaff of 13-12. The Grizzlies have won seven of the last eight meetings overall and four of the last five at NAU. The Lumberjacks won in four sets last fall at Flagstaff.
Griz to play shorthanded for second straight week: Montana will be without the services of senior outside hitter Paige Branstiter and redshirt freshman middle blocker Capri Richardson for the second straight weekend. Both are out with lower-leg injuries.
In Branstiter's place, freshman Gabby Crowell saw her most extensive game action of the season against Weber State and Idaho State. She struggled offensively against the Wildcats, finishing with four kills on a negative hitting percentage, but came back Saturday to have 13 kills on .065 hitting.
More on Montana: If fortune favors the bold, that might help explain when both Weber State and Idaho State left Missoula with tight five-set wins last weekend. The two teams combined to put down 25 more kills than the Grizzlies but also had 20 more attack errors. WSU and ISU also had 16 service aces to Montana's seven. ... Despite Montana's 1-5 league record, the Grizzlies are out-hitting their six Big Sky opponents, .187-.184. (Though those opponents have 30 more kills than Montana.) ... Brooke Bray ranks second in the Big Sky in blocking (1.34/s) and fourth in hitting percentage (.325). ... Bray is hitting .338 in league matches. That also ranks fourth. ... On Montana's recent four-match home stand, junior outside hitter Kayla Reno averaged 3.22 kills per set on .244 hitting. ... Junior libero Megan Murphey had a season-high 19 digs against Idaho State. ... In league play, Montana ranks between sixth and 10th in every Big Sky statistical category. Using the entire season, the Grizzlies rank fourth in blocking. ... Junior setter Kortney James had back-to-back assists-digs double-doubles last weekend, giving her six for the season.
Upcoming: The Grizzlies will have a single-match week when they host Sacramento State on Friday, Oct. 12. Montana will play at Montana State on Monday, Oct. 15, to conclude the first round of the 20-match Big Sky schedule.
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