Oct. 18, 2012
The Montana volleyball team will begin the second half of its Big Sky Conference schedule at home this weekend when it hosts North Dakota and Northern Colorado. Both matches begin at 7 p.m. at the West Auxiliary Gym. The Grizzlies will face UND Friday and the Bears Saturday.
Where they stand: Montana (5-14, 3-7 BSC) is currently tied for eighth in the Big Sky. The record does not overwhelm, but the Grizzlies are on a season-best two-match winning streak and riding some momentum. ... North Dakota (10-11, 5-5 BSC) is tied for fifth with Montana State. UND has been neither hot nor cold this season, just solidly consistent. Its longest winning streak is two matches, its longest losing streak has been three. ... Northern Colorado (14-5, 7-3 BSC), the almost unanimous preseason favorite, is sitting in a surprising fourth place at the midway point of the league schedule. All three of the Bears' league losses have come against the three teams ahead of them in the standings.
The first time around: Montana opened its Big Sky schedule at Northern Colorado in mid-September. The Grizzlies took the opening set off the Bears, 26-24, but dropped the next three, 25-21, 25-22, 25-18.
Two days later Montana lost 3-0 at North Dakota in a match that was tighter than the final score indicates. The Grizzlies lost the first set 26-24 after holding a 22-20 lead and dropped the third by the same score after leading 22-21.
Where we are: One week ago Montana was 1-7 through its first eight Big Sky Conference matches and already looking like it was out of the running for next month's six-team league tournament. A lot has happened since then.
The Grizzlies seized the momentum from Sacramento State last Friday at the West Auxiliary Gym and beat the Hornets in four sets, and Monday night in Bozeman Montana staged an epic rally to beat Montana State in five sets. All of a sudden tournament talk is back among the topics of conversation.
Monday's match was the end of the first half of play for the Big Sky Conference. As everyone knows Montana lost three five-set matches at home -- to Portland State, Weber State and Idaho State -- after holding a fifth-set lead in all three. Those may or may not come back to haunt the Grizzlies when it gets into the final week of the regular season and final tournament spots are being decided, but for now all eyes are on the future and staying on a roll.
"The first half is what it was and how it turned out. We did as much as we could with it," UM coach Jerry Wagner said. "With 10 matches still to go there is plenty of time, but we don't have much margin for error.
"We still have some control in how this thing plays out, but we only keep that control if we win these key matchups. The one Friday (against North Dakota) can put us solidly in contention and prove that we're making headway into the second half."
Midpoint tournament outlook: Idaho State (15-4, 9-1 BSC) and Portland State (13-8, 9-1 BSC) are tied atop the conference at the midway point. They are trailed by the first half's biggest surprise, Northern Arizona (16-3, 8-2 BSC), and fourth-place Northern Colorado.
All four teams are going to make the six-team tournament next month. That's a lock. Everybody else is playing for the final two tournament spots, except for Eastern Washington (0-21, 0-10 BSC), which was out of the running the day Miles Kydd resigned in late August.
Of the six teams battling for two spots, Montana State (11-7) and North Dakota are tied for fifth with 5-5 league records, Southern Utah (8-13) is 4-6, Montana and Sacramento State (7-13) are 3-7 and Weber State (8-13) is 2-8.
The good news for Montana: The three teams directly ahead of the Grizzlies in the standings, MSU, UND and SUU, all have to travel to Missoula over the back half of the season. More good news: By having Portland State and Idaho State on the ropes, Montana showed it can compete with anybody in the Big Sky.
The bad news, as mentioned previously, is that the Grizzlies have dug themselves a hole and can't afford any slipups. They are down two games in the standings with 10 to play and trying to beat out teams for the tournament who are just as hungry to get there as Montana is.
"The climbing has got to start now. We have to be improved and have different outcomes this round," Wagner added.
* Junior middle blocker Brooke Bray was crazy good against Sac State and Montana State. She averaged 3.44 kills per set on .560 hitting and added 1.22 blocks. In league play she ranks second in the Big Sky in hitting percentage (.366) and ninth in blocks (1.10/s).
* While Bray was getting it done at the net, junior libero Megan Murphey was doing the same thing in the back row. Murphey, whose career high is 25 digs, had 24 against the Hornets and 23 against the Bobcats.
* Northern Colorado holds a 9-6 advantage over Montana in their series history. The Grizzlies have won five of the six meetings in Missoula. The Bears picked up their only win at the West Auxiliary Gym in 2010, a sound 3-0 beating, and Montana won a five-set thriller last fall.
* Friday will be North Dakota's first trip to Montana as a Big Sky Conference opponent, though UND played six matches at the West Auxiliary Gym at the Grizzlies' home tournaments in 2009 and 2010. North Dakota has a 3-1 series lead and has won the teams' last three meetings, the previous two by 3-0 sweeps.
* Two teams to envy: Northern Arizona plays seven of its 10 matches in the second half at home, and after playing at Portland State and Eastern Washington this weekend, Sacramento State plays six of its last eight at home.
* The team that won't be the envy of any? Idaho State. The Bengals play seven of 10 on the back side on the road.
* With Portland State having already peaked and Idaho State facing so many road tests, look for the two directional schools, Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado, to be fighting it out at the top when mid-November rolls around. The most exciting thing about that possibility? Northern Colorado plays at Northern Arizona on the final night of the regular season.
Current Big Sky Conference standings:
Idaho State: 9-1 BSC ... 15-4 overall
Portland State: 9-1 ... 13-8
Northern Arizona: 8-2 ... 16-3
Northern Colorado: 7-3 ... 14-5
Montana State: 5-5 ... 11-7
North Dakota: 5-5 ... 10-11
Southern Utah: 4-6 ... 8-13
Sacramento State: 3-7 ... 7-13
Montana: 3-7 ... 5-14
Weber State: 2-8 ... 8-13
Eastern Washington: 0-10 ... 0-21
This week's schedule:
Thursday: WSU at NAU, ISU at SUU, EWU at PSU
Friday: UND at UM, UNC at MSU
Saturday: UNC at UM, UND at MSU, SAC at PSU, WSU at SUU, ISU at NAU
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