Griz searching for historic road breakthrough
Oct. 24, 2012
The Montana volleyball team, winner of three of its last four matches, will play at Eastern Washington and Portland State this week. The Grizzlies will face the Eagles Thursday at 8 p.m. (MT) at Cheney, Wash., and the Vikings Saturday at 8 p.m. (MT) at Portland, Ore.
Live coverage: Both matches this week can be followed by video at Big Sky TV or by live stats. Links to the free Big Sky TV broadcasts can be found on the volleyball schedule page at GoGriz.com. Live stats can be found at GoEags.com and GoViks.com.
The big picture: With four weeks and eight matches remaining in the regular season, Montana (6-15, 4-8 BSC) is currently in eighth place in the Big Sky Conference standings.
Assuming Portland State (15-8, 11-1 BSC), Northern Arizona (18-3, 10-2 BSC), Idaho State (16-5, 10-2 BSC) and Northern Colorado (15-7, 8-4 BSC) are already locked into the six-team Big Sky tournament, that leaves everyone else fighting for the final two spots.
If the regular season ended today, those two spots would go to Montana State (12-8, 6-6 BSC) and North Dakota (11-12, 6-6 BSC), teams that have a two-game lead over Montana. In between the Grizzlies and a top-six spot is also Southern Utah (9-14, 5-7 BSC).
Unlike most coaches who claim they don't look at the standings, that everything will take care of itself, UM coach Jerry Wagner is open with his team about where it stands and what needs to be done.
"We show them every week where we're at, but we also know for the most part we have no control over (the standings)," he says. "We only have control over what we do Thursday night. You can only control what you do next."
Historically speaking: The Eastern Washington-Portland State road trip has not been kind to the Montana volleyball team, and that dates back well before Wagner took over the program in 2006.
The Grizzlies have gone 0-2 against the Eagles and Vikings on the road the last 11 seasons. Montana has not won at Portland State since 2000 or at Eastern Washington since 1995.
The Grizzlies are 0-6 at Cheney under Wagner, though three of those six losses have gone five sets. That includes last season when Montana rolled to a 25-14 win in set four only to see Eastern Washington cruise to a 15-8 victory in the fifth set.
The little picture (Thursday's match): The Eagles (1-22, 1-11 BSC) picked up their first win of the season Monday night with a 3-0 victory over Sacramento State at Cheney, and it's hard to know if that will work in Montana's favor or against the Grizzlies.
The Eagles will no longer have the pressure of being a winless team and will know that even though they opened 0-22, the Grizzlies still only have five more wins than EWU does this season.
Montana won the first meeting against Eastern Washington at Missoula in straight sets, 25-20, 25-16, 25-17, though the match did provide some tense moments. The first set was tied at 19, and EWU had a 15-13 lead in the second set.
The little picture (Saturday's match): Portland State is rolling. The Vikings were 4-7 when they opened Big Sky play but have gone 11-1 since. Their only league loss was at Idaho State in straight sets two weeks ago at Pocatello.
Since that loss PSU has roughed up Weber State, Eastern Washington and Sacramento State over the course of 10 sets. In the nine of those 10 sets that Portland State won, the most points any of those three opponents reached was 18, which is dominant no matter who a team is playing.
Montana hosted Portland State a month ago, when the Vikings were in the early stages of their hot streak and still under .500 for the season. The Grizzlies outhit the Vikings, but PSU proved to be the better closer and won 3-2.
Jaklyn Wheeler had 26 kills on .234 hitting for Portland State, which rallied back from a 12-10 deficit in the fifth set to win 15-13. With the set tied at 13, Wheeler had back-to-back kills to end the match.
"I feel good about what we did that whole weekend (when we hosted Portland State and Eastern Washington)," Wagner said. "I liked what we did competitively and felt good about what we were able to have success with."
Home and away: Montana is 2-9 away from home this season. The Grizzlies picked up a 3-0 neutral-site victory over Sacred Heart at San Diego State's tournament over Labor Day weekend and won last week in five sets at Montana State.
Eastern Washington is 1-5 at home this season. ... Portland State is 6-2 at home this fall. The six wins have all been league matches, and none of those six teams has taken more than a set off the Vikings at the Stott Center. ... PSU's home losses were against UC Santa Barbara in four sets and Oregon in three.
Montana nearing full strength: Senior outside hitter Paige Branstiter (ankle) missed six straight matches before playing sparingly over four sets last weekend against North Dakota and Northern Colorado.
Redshirt freshman middle blocker Capri Richardson (ankle) has missed the last nine matches and has not played since Portland State visited Missoula on Sept. 21.
Both are practicing and both are available to play in this week's matches.
"Getting Paige and Capri back in practice has sharpened our team up, and both have looked good," Wagner said. "They are both getting closer to full strength, and I know they will contribute when called upon."
Most recently: It was a down and up weekend for Montana at home last weekend. Looking to build on their two-match winning streak (with wins over Sacramento State and Montana State), the Grizzlies came out flat and lost in three sets to North Dakota last Friday. UND overwhelmed UM offensively, finishing with 15 more kills in just three sets.
Needing to rebound the next night, Montana did just that, hitting a season-high .349 in a 3-1 win over preseason league favorite Northern Colorado. Four players had 11 or more kills and all four hit .277 or better in the process.
Current Big Sky Conference standings:
Portland State: 11-1 BSC / 15-8 overall
* It's not too hard to envision a scenario that has Montana within a game of Montana State entering the Big Sky Conference's final regular-season match, Montana State at Montana on Monday, Nov. 19, with the winner earning the No. 6 seed at the Big Sky tournament and the loser's season coming to an end. Keeping fingers crossed.
This week's Big Sky Conference matches:
Thursday: Montana at Eastern Washington, Montana State at Portland State, Idaho State at North Dakota, Weber State at Northern Colorado, Southern Utah at Sacramento State
Saturday: Montana at Portland State, Montana State at Eastern Washington, Weber State at North Dakota, Idaho State at Northern Colorado, Northern Arizona at Sacramento State
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