Griz aiming to lock down Big Sky tournament spot
Nov. 13, 2013
The Montana volleyball team will tackle its ninth of 10 Big Sky Conference weeks when it faces Northern Arizona and Southern Utah on the road. The Grizzlies and Lumberjacks will play Thursday at 7 p.m. at Flagstaff. The Grizzlies will face the Thunderbirds Saturday at 7 p.m. at Cedar City.
Coverage: Both matches this week will be streamed on Big Sky TV and both will have live stats available. Links to all available services can be found on the volleyball schedule page at GoGriz.com.
Where they stand: Montana is 12-13 overall, 9-7 in Big Sky matches and alone in fifth place. ... Northern Arizona is 17-8 overall, 11-5 in league play and tied for third with Idaho State. ... Southern Utah is 3-24 overall, 2-14 in Big Sky matches and sitting alone in last place.
Most recently: Montana split at home last weekend, falling in five sets to Idaho State before sweeping Weber State. ... Northern Arizona split on the road, winning in straight sets at Eastern Washington and losing in four at Portland State. The Lumberjacks won the opening set against the Vikings 26-24 but failed to reach 20 points in next three sets. ... Southern Utah was swept on the same road trip. The Thunderbirds lost 3-0 at Portland State and 3-1 at Eastern Washington to drop to 1-16 in their last 17 matches.
Thursday storyline No. 1: Northern Arizona hasn't clinched a spot to the Big Sky Conference tournament yet, but it won't take much to send the Lumberjacks to the postseason for the second straight year. All they need is one win this week at home against Montana and Montana State or a loss by either Sacramento State or Northern Colorado.
Thursday storyline No. 2: Montana's path to its first Big Sky tournament since 2010 isn't as easy as Northern Arizona's, but the Grizzlies are in a nice position. Their magic number (a combination of UM wins or Northern Colorado losses) to clinch a spot is two.
Thursday storyline No. 3: Northern Arizona is scary good when playing in Flagstaff. The Lumberjacks are 7-1 in home league matches (9-2 overall), with six 3-0 sweeps, including three-set victories over Big Sky leaders North Dakota and Portland State. The only team to get NAU in Flagstaff was Northern Colorado in five sets.
Thursday storyline No. 4: Montana has an interesting distinction. The Grizzlies are 0-7 against the four teams ahead of them in the standings and have just three wins in 24 sets played. Montana is 9-0 against the six teams below it in the standings. Thursday is the last time Montana will have an opportunity to face a top-four team before the Big Sky tournament.
Thursday storyline No. 5: Montana's worst loss last season came at Northern Arizona, 25-8, 25-11, 25-20. The Lumberjacks hit .604 in winning the first two sets with numbers that still seem impossible: 30 kills and just one attack error on 48 swings. Some teams couldn't pull that off playing 6 on 0.
The first meeting: In Northern Arizona's 3-1 win over Montana at Missoula on Oct. 12, everything changed on a pair of blocks. The Grizzlies won the opening set 25-23 and held a 24-22 lead in the second. The Lumberjacks blocked Kayla Reno and Natalie Jones on back-to-back points to even the score, and Payton Bock and Addy Lofstedt put down kills to give NAU the set 26-24.
The Lumberjacks hit .387 over sets three and four to finish off the match with easy 25-17 and 25-17 wins.
NAU's Sydney Kemper had 19 kills on .361 hitting and six blocks, and Trianna Henry had 23 digs as Northern Arizona finished with a 67-46 advantage in that category. Reno had 14 kills to lead the Grizzlies, but she was limited to .115 hitting.
Who to watch for: NAU sophomore Janae Vander Ploeg is the best young outside hitter in the Big Sky. She is averaging 3.46 kills per set on .237 hitting. ... Junior middle blocker Taylor Stephens leads the Big Sky in blocks during conference play for the league's top blocking team. ... For Montana, senior outside hitter Kayla Reno is crushing it. Over the Grizzlies' last five matches, she's put down 79 kills (3.95/s) on .233 hitting. In last weekend's home split with Idaho State and Weber State, Reno averaged 4.62 kills on .329 hitting. ... Using the entire season's statistics, senior middle blocker Brooke Bray is tied with Stephens for the Big Sky lead in blocks at 1.27 per set. ... Freshman outside hitter Claire McCown had 23 kills on .315 hitting in Friday's 3-2 loss to Idaho State. McCown had 82 kills for the entire season entering the match. She had six in Saturday's win over Weber State.
History: Montana leads the all-time series with Northern Arizona 32-26. The Lumberjacks own a 14-13 edge in matches played at Flagstaff, with two straight wins. NAU has won four of the teams' last five meetings overall after UM had won eight of the previous nine.
Senior class among all-time leaders: Montana has a four-player senior class, and all four players rank in the top 10 in program history in at least one category (see below).
Middle blocker Brooke Bray ranks fifth in hitting percentage (.256) and block assists (378) and sixth in total blocks (426). Outside hitter Kayla Reno ranks second in attacks (3,951) and seventh in kills (1,185). Setter Kortney James ranks fifth in assists (3,645). And libero Megan Murphey ranks 10th in digs (1,116).
The Big Sky Conference at a glance:
The schoolyard bullies: North Dakota (19-9, 14-2 BSC), Portland State (16-10, 13-3 BSC)
The teams meet Thursday night in Portland, and both enter the match with their destinies in their own hands. North Dakota would essentially wrap up the Big Sky regular-season title with a win. That would put UND up two on PSU with the tiebreaker. A Portland State win would bring the two teams even atop the standings. A Viking win in three or four sets would give PSU the head-to-head tiebreaker. North Dakota won the teams' first meeting in Grand Forks in five sets.
North Dakota fans: Northern Arizona (17-8, 11-5 BSC), Idaho State (17-10, 11-5 BSC)
Neither team is winning the Big Sky title, but both would still love to go into the Big Sky tournament as the No. 2 seed and get a bye to the semifinals. After hosting North Dakota on Thursday, Portland State faces red-hot Northern Colorado, then closes the regular season at Idaho State, so forthcoming PSU losses are not out of the question. Of course Northern Arizona closes the season on the road at UND and UNC next week, so the Lumberjacks holding steady at five losses isn't a safe bet either.
Four teams, two tournament spots: Montana (12-13, 9-7 BSC), Sacramento State (13-14, 8-8 BSC), Northern Colorado (11-15, 7-9 BSC), Eastern Washington (9-18, 6-10 BSC)
With regular-season sweeps over Northern Colorado and Eastern Washington, Montana is sitting in the best position, but the Grizzlies play three of their final four matches on the road. Northern Colorado, the first team to beat North Dakota in Grand Forks this season and being guided by the league's best coaching staff, is the next best bet to make the tournament. The Bears are playing well and, with the tiebreaker over Sac State, only need to finish tied with the Hornets by season's end. The Eagles are still mathematically alive but probably won't be after this weekend.
Spoilers: Montana State (6-21, 4-12 BSC), Weber State (7-23, 3-13 BSC), Southern Utah (3-24, 2-14 BSC)
They've already started messing things up, starting with Southern Utah's shocking win over Northern Arizona a week ago Monday that snapped SUU's 14-match losing streak and put an end to NAU's thoughts of a regular-season title.
Stay tuned: Though the 2013 regular-season champion has yet to be decided, what is known is that North Dakota and Portland State have clinched tournament spots and will be playing in two weeks in Portland. Northern Arizona and Idaho State should both clinch spots this week, and Montana certainly could. The final spot likely won't be decided until next week.
The first meeting with Southern Utah: Except for a few missteps in the second set, Montana had little problem defeating Southern Utah in the teams' meeting in Missoula last month 25-12, 26-24, 25-16. The Grizzlies' .345 hitting percentage in that match was a season best.
History: Montana and Southern Utah are tied 2-2 in a series that dates back only to 2011. As Big Sky opponents last season for the first time, the Thunderbirds pulled off the sweep of the Grizzlies, winning in straight sets at Cedar City and in five sets at Missoula. Their first meeting was a neutral-site win for Montana at North Dakota's tournament in 2011.
Wednesday in the Big Sky: WSU at ISU
Upcoming: Montana will wrap up the regular season with a home match against Sacramento State on Saturday, Nov. 23, and a road match at Montana State on Monday, Nov. 25.
Career Records Watch
Hitting percentage (min. 1,500 attempts)
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