PORTLAND, Ore. — The Montana volleyball team, seeded No. 5, won its first postseason match since 1996 when the Grizzlies knocked off No. 4 Northern Arizona in five sets Friday afternoon in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Conference tournament.
Montana (16-14), which has won a season-high four straight matches, will face No. 1 seed Portland State (20-10) Friday at 8 p.m. (MT) in the tournament’s second semifinal.
No. 3 Idaho State, a 3-1 winner over No. 6 Northern Colorado Friday morning, will play No. 2 North Dakota in Friday’s first semifinal.
Montana lost twice to Northern Arizona (19-11) during the regular season, both times in four sets, but the Grizzlies finally figured out how to attack the team that led the Big Sky Conference in opponent hitting percentage (.178) during the regular season.
Senior Kayla Reno had 19 kills on .258 hitting, junior Kelsey Schile added 16 on .324 hitting, and Montana hit .269 to win 25-16, 25-22, 20-25, 21-25, 15-10 to snap an eight-match tournament losing streak.
“We had a game plan, and the kids executed it perfectly,” said eighth-year coach Jerry Wagner, who led his team from a last-place finish in 2012 to not just a tournament spot in 2013 but a historic postseason victory.
“The only credit I’ll take is sticking with these kids and trying to get the most out of them. We knew we had this type of talent and perseverance.”
The Grizzlies were a confident bunch entering the tournament, and it showed early. Montana hit .583 in the opening set and .286 in the second to roll to a quick 2-0 lead.
Facing elimination, Northern Arizona changed its offensive approach before set three, and the Lumberjacks hit .295 to win sets three and four and forth a fifth set.
“They went to tipping the ball,” Wagner explained. “We mentioned it in the pregame meeting, but when it didn’t show up for the first two sets, we needed to make some in-game adjustments.”
Northern Arizona had the momentum entering the fifth set, but Montana had something more valuable: the experience of last season to draw upon.
Montana jumped out to a 6-2 lead, and even though NAU fought back to tie it at 7-7, the Grizzlies never wavered.
Back-to-back blocks put Montana up 10-7, and five kills from Schile and freshman Claire McCown in the set’s final six points gave the Grizzlies the win.
“I hate to keep going back to last season, but we had a lot of kids who played hard last year through some tough matches,” Wagner said. “Now that we have some depth and the right people in place, we’re coming through because we know what it takes to compete in a five-set match.”
Montana didn’t win strictly because of its offense. The Grizzlies held Northern Arizona’s Sydney Kemper, who was averaging nearly three kills per set on .235 hitting, to just six kills on -.038 hitting. That helped offset a big match from Janae Vander Ploeg, who had 27 kills on .353 hitting.
Montana also kept up its winning trend of tough serving. The Grizzlies had seven service aces from five different players and dozens of serves that kept the Lumberjacks off balance.
“The telltale sign today was our ability to serve the right people and slow Northern Arizona’s offense down,” Wagner said. “That’s what won out.”
Senior Brooke Bray had nine kills on .438 hitting and six blocks, senior Kortney James had 56 assists, and senior Megan Murphey finished with 24 digs.
With one historic win already in the books, Montana will try for another Friday night. The Grizzlies have lost 20 straight matches against Portland State and haven’t won at PSU’s Stott Center since 2000.
The Vikings posted a pair of easy 3-0 victories over Montana during the regular season.
“The more cards you stack against this team the way it is right now, the better,” Wagner said. “Every single player in this program wants to beat the best, so that means we want to face the best.
“I know we’ll be up for it and give it everything we have. I think the adrenaline we have after this win is going to carry over and give us a real shot.”
— Montana Sports Information