UM’s James earns Big Sky honor

Montana senior setter Kortney James, who led the Grizzlies to the tournament championship at Texas Tech’s Lone Star Showdown in Lubbock, Texas, over the weekend was named the Big Sky Conference Player of the Week by the league office Monday.

The award is James’ first career player of the week honor.

James, of Sandpoint, Idaho, averaged 9.64 assists and 3.73 digs against Texas Tech, Cal State Fullerton and Nevada to lead Montana to its first in-season tournament title since winning Maine’s tournament to open the 2005 season.

The Grizzlies recorded 3-0 sweeps of Texas Tech and Fullerton on Friday, then lost to Nevada in five sets on Saturday. Montana and Cal State Fullerton both finished 2-1 at the tournament. The Grizzlies claimed the crystal trophy because of their head-to-head sweep of the Titans.

Montana had a number of players who could have been nominated for player of the week honors following the team’s successful weekend.

Senior outside hitter Kayla Reno, who joined James on the all-tournament team, averaged 3.00 kills, 2.64 digs and nearly one block per set. Senior middle blocker Brooke Bray hit .367 and averaged 1.45 blocks, both team highs. And senior libero Megan Murphey had 55 digs (5.00/s) over 11 sets.

But James got the nod. She had 34 assists and 13 digs against the Red Raiders, a victory that came just eight days after losing to Tech at Washington State’s tournament, and she added 28 assists with three kills on six swings against Fullerton to snap the Titans’ six-match winning streak.

In Saturday’s loss to Nevada, James had 44 assists, a career-high 20 digs and a season-high five blocks. She finished the tournament with 41 digs (3.73/s) and added 11 kills (1.00/s) and nine blocks (0.82/s).

With James leading the offense, the Grizzlies out-hit all three of their opponents last weekend by a large margin (.193-.128). It started with Montana’s back-row passing that put James in a position where she could be most effective (i.e. not chasing errant passes).

Part of that had to do with the debut of redshirt freshman defensive specialist Sadie Ahearn, who missed the season’s opening two weekends with an ankle injury. She only added to the backcourt play Montana was already receiving from Reno and Murphey.

“Kortney was able to direct the offense and utilize the things we were looking for matchup-wise because she was getting the ball in a good position on a more consistent basis,” UM coach Jerry Wagner said. “We weren’t as good at giving her the opportunity to run our offense at our first two tournaments.

“With the addition of Sadie, along with the solid play of Kayla and Megan, Kortney was able to direct the offense last weekend on a more regular basis.”

Montana limited the Red Raiders, Titans and Wolf Pack to .128 hitting. The Grizzlies’ defensive effort was initiated at the net and extended to their backcourt digging. Montana out-blocked all three opponents, again by a wide margin (35-21), and totaled six more digs.

James was a key member of that effort. Her nine blocks ranked fourth on the team, and her 41 digs ranked second only to Murphey’s 55.

Her numbers are up because with junior Kelsey Schile and freshmen Michelle Robinson and Raegan Lindsey capable of setting a good ball, James has been able to commit herself to digging instead of always thinking ahead to the second pass.

“With so many other sets of hands on the court, it’s allowed Kortney to remain at home and dig her position first instead of having to worry about getting her hands on every second ball,” Wagner said.

“She knows that if she digs it, Kelsey, Michelle or Raegan are out there and can set an effective ball. She’s thinking, I just need to get the ball in the air, because somebody else can make something good happen with it.”

With its three early-season tournaments now complete, Montana moves into its second season. The Grizzlies will host Northern Colorado and North Dakota this weekend at the West Auxiliary Gym as Big Sky Conference play commences.

 — Montana Sports Information