Griz volleyball signs four

MISSOULA — On Saturday night, before Montana’s final home match of the season, four seniors on the Griz volleyball team will recognized for careers well spent. Patiently waiting in the wings to fill those spots next season and beyond are four prep seniors who recently committed to the program.

Eighth-year UM volleyball coach Jerry Wagner recently signed Rachel DeArman, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Brianna Gardner, of Alta Loma, Calif., Jacelyn Henderson, of Billings, Mont., and Janell Sparks, of Tacoma, Wash., to National Letters of Intent.

They will be joining a program that next week will be making its fifth trip to the Big Sky Conference tournament in Wagner’s eight years, but the team’s first postseason appearance since 2010.

“The plan was to return to a high level of play this season behind the leadership of our senior class, and then use the depth of our last two recruiting classes to keep us strong with new players through each position,” said Wagner, who brought in five new players prior to this season.

“Two things stick out with this group. First, they all have experience playing high-level volleyball and have had some great coaching throughout those experiences. Second, they are all outstanding people. They’ve all been leaders on their teams and been counted on to be their team’s go-to player in clutch situations.”

All four of Montana’s seniors — outside hitter Kayla Reno, middle blocker Brooke Bray, libero Megan Murphey and setter Kortney James — rank in the top 10 in program history in at least one category. The incoming class, which did not include a libero, should contend to fill three of the four spots.

DeArman, a 5-8 setter, is a senior at Colony High and next spring will be playing her eighth year with Club West, one of the nation’s top club programs. She will help fill the position vacated by James, who has been starting since her freshman season and ranks fifth in Montana history with 3,715 assists.

The Grizzlies also have capable setters on the roster in current junior Kelsey Schile and freshman Raegan Lindsey. The former also is a right-side hitter, the latter a defensive specialist. The incoming Henderson is also a setter.

“Rachel has been a setter for a long time and really understands the position,” Wagner said. “We expect her to come in and compete immediately as someone who can direct this team from the setter position.

“With Rachel, along with Kelsey, Raegan and Jacelyn, we feel like we’re going to be in good hands at that position. But it’s also one we’ll need to develop quickly, because Kortney has been a mainstay in that position for four years.”

DeArman, who has a 4.04 GPA, was first-team all-league as a junior for Colony High and has advanced to USA Volleyball junior nationals with Club West five times in seven years. Last summer DeArman and her teammates finished sixth in the 17 Open division at Dallas, Texas.

“I chose to sign with Montana because I respect the coaches and I felt like I can positively contribute to the success of the team,” DeArman said. “I loved the beautiful campus and felt very welcomed. I could feel the support from the community and the school spirit.”

Gardner, a 6-2 middle blocker, is a senior at Alta Loma High. She led the Baseline League in hitting percentage (.353) as a junior and plays for the same Club West team as DeArman.

The loss of Bray, who ranks fifth in program history in both career hitting percentage (.257) and block assists (383), means Gardner will be battling current redshirt junior Natalie Jones and redshirt sophomore Capri Richardson for playing time next season at middle blocker.

“Brianna brings a physical nature to this class,” Wagner said. “She’s tall, she’s long, and she’s strong. At 6-foot-2, she’s taller than anybody we have on the team, so that’s going to be a change from what we’ve had over the last few years.

“She is someone we need to come in and compete with Capri and Natalie and continue the line of middles we’ve had who have been dominant offensively and defensively.”

Gardner said of her decision, “Montana is a gorgeous campus, and I love the country and the outdoors, so it just seemed perfect from the beginning. I completely fell in love when I took my unofficial visit and got to meet my future teammates, see the facilities and enjoy the beauty of Missoula.

“And when I discovered that Montana has a great biology program, I realized that the school would meet my academic needs as well as allow me to pursue my athletic ambitions.

“It’s been extremely encouraging to watch the team progress and win a lot of tough matches this season while knowing I’m going to be getting the opportunity to play with such an amazing group of girls. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Henderson, a 6-0 setter, signed her NLI two days after leading Billings Senior High to its second consecutive Class AA state championship. She was the 2012 Gatorade Montana Volleyball Player of the Year as a junior and was recently named an AVCA honorable mention All-American.

“Jacelyn has received some of the highest accolades in the state while playing for an extremely successful high school program,” Wagner said. “I’ve wanted to recruit a player from the Billings Senior program when it fit recruiting-wise and position-wise into our program.

“Jacelyn is a strong, physical player who does every skill well. She’ll compete for a setting position, and she’ll also compete for a hitting position.”

Henderson, who was also being recruited as a basketball player, has been a four-year starter for coach Jeff Carroll and the Broncs, who won their Montana-record 11th state championship Saturday night. Billings Senior, state runner-up in 2011, lost just one match during its two championship seasons.

“For her to break into the varsity as a freshman and become a mainstay in that program says a lot about her work ethic, her character and her leadership ability,” Wagner said. “It was a great job by our staff to be in a position to go after Jacelyn and encourage her to become a Griz.”

Henderson was a starter on Billings Senior basketball teams that won the consolation bracket at the 2013 state tournament and lost the consolation final in 2012. She placed fourth in both the discus and shot at last spring’s Class AA state track and field meet.

“I signed with Montana because I felt I would be getting into a family atmosphere with a coach who cares about me as a player and as a person,” said Henderson, who has two younger brothers and an older sister.

“I was also happy that I could attend a college with an outstanding academic reputation, with professors and staff who care about my success. It was just a great fit from the moment I stepped on campus.

“And I loved that I could remain in Montana and continue to be a part of my brothers’ high school experiences and my sister’s life.”

Reno, with 4,033 career attacks, has taken more swings than any player in Griz volleyball history, and her 1,208 kills rank seventh in program history. Out with one high-volume hitter, in with another in Sparks, a 6-0 outside hitter at Curtis High.

Henderson had a memorable finish to her high school career Saturday night in Bozeman. The same night, in Lacey, Wash., Sparks and her Curtis High teammates nearly pulled off an upset that would have topped even Henderson’s magical evening.

Facing undefeated Bellarmine Prep, which had only dropped two sets all season while reaching as high as No. 4 in the national rankings, in the Class 4A title match, Curtis High pushed the Lions to five sets before falling behind Sparks’ 28 kills (or 32, depending on the newspaper account).

“We’re going to be losing a dominant player in that position, but we’re looking forward to big things from Janell while she competes for a position on the left side early in her career,” Wagner said.

“She’s young, but she’s been improving by leaps and bounds and making huge improvements as a primary and dominant left-side hitter.”

Sparks, who has the same coach that Reno and Bray had their final two years of club volleyball, was named last weekend to the Class 4A all-tournament team. As a junior she was a second-team All-South Puget Sound League selection.

“On my first visit to Montana, I immediately fell in love with the scenery,” Sparks said. “I liked the smaller campus and having everything within walking distance. And the coaches and girls on the team made me feel very comfortable throughout my visit.

“On another visit I had the opportunity to go to a football game. It was very exciting to see how much Missoula comes out to support the Grizzlies.”

Wagner plans on adding up to two more non-scholarship players in the coming months.

“I’m excited to have this group join our more veteran players and last year’s recruiting class,” he said. “The plan is for them to step in and fill the shoes of the players we’re losing and continue the success we’re more accustomed to.”

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