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Montana volleyball: Grizzlies ready for four straight at home

The Grizzlies (6-13, 1-5 BSC) snapped a 10-match losing streak on Saturday with a convincing 3-1 victory at Weber State, their first Big Sky road win in nearly two years. Montana almost made it a road-trip sweep, falling in five sets at Idaho State on Thursday. (GoGriz.com)

The Montana volleyball team, which played 18 of its first 19 matches this season away from Missoula, will play its next four and seven of its final 10 regular-season matches at home, starting this week.

The Grizzlies will host Northern Colorado on Friday and North Dakota on Saturday. Both matches start at 7 p.m. at the West Auxiliary Gym.

Montana will host Southern Utah and Northern Arizona next week, on Thursday and Saturday, as the back half of the Grizzlies’ 16-match league schedule begins.

Quick hitters:

Montana: The Grizzlies (6-13, 1-5 BSC) snapped a 10-match losing streak on Saturday with a convincing 3-1 victory at Weber State, their first Big Sky road win in nearly two years. Montana almost made it a road-trip sweep, falling in five sets at Idaho State on Thursday.

Northern Colorado: The Bears (9-10, 2-4 BSC) were picked second in the preseason poll but have been un-UNC-like in the early part of league. Northern Colorado has lost three straight and four of five, two of those losses coming at home in straight sets.

North Dakota: The heaviest of the Big Sky’s heavyweights, the Fighting Hawks (19-4, 4-2 BSC) were 19-2 going into last week, then surprisingly got swept on the road by Sacramento State and Portland State. It was North Dakota’s first time losing back-to-back matches since Sept. 16-17 of last year.

What’s at stake:

For Montana: It was only one match, Saturday’s win over the Wildcats, but the Grizzlies are giving off the vibe of a team that maybe, just maybe, is starting to surge. And at just the right time, with a majority of its upcoming matches at home. From 0-5 league start to tournament qualifier? It feels possible.

For Northern Colorado: Coach Lyndsey Oates’s teams always seem to get on a roll in October, then peak in November. Either this team is just slow to get going or it won’t be living up to the standard that previous UNC teams have set before it.

For North Dakota: Nobody was going to stop the Fighting Hawks from hosting the Big Sky tournament for the second straight year, until Sacramento State and Portland State put down speed bumps last week. Now the Fighting Hawks don’t even lead the Big Sky’s North Division. That would be Idaho.

This week’s storylines:

1. All that is possible, finally on display — Montana snapped its losing streak on Saturday, but the start can be traced to Thursday night in Pocatello. After falling into a 2-0 hole, the Grizzlies nearly fought back for the victory, losing in five sets.

That carried over to Saturday. Montana rallied from down 21-17 in set 2 to win 25-22, pulled out a tight 28-26 win in set 3, then cruised in the fourth, winning 25-19.

The Grizzlies hit a season-best .270 and had stars aplenty: Missy Huddleston had 23 kills on ridiculous .400 hitting. Lia Gaogao had 33 digs, the most for the program since 2010.

Ashley Watkins totaled 63 assists, the most in a four-set match since 2004. Baily Permann had 15 kills and just one error on 29 swings to hit .483. And Maddy Marshall added a season-high 16 kills, Mykaela Hammer 14.

First-year coach Allison Lawrence has been preaching the merits of keeping the big picture in view at all times, but even she had to admit this week that, wow, that win on Saturday night was pretty sweet.

“In the locker room afterwards, instead of asking, What did we learn? What did we do well? And how can we put more and more of the good things together to get the outcome we’re playing for? we got to sit back and celebrate, which was really nice,” she said.

“We were able to celebrate and enjoy that moment of relaxation that we got the outcome we wanted. We’ve been seeing glimpses of that all year. It felt good to put that together for an entire match. There was a sense of relief.

“I still feel that focusing on winning and outcome is a trap, but our ultimate goal was to win the match, so when you do that, it feels incredibly good.”

2. Home matches at just the right time — Playing seven of 10 at home is always a positive. Starting that stretch of the schedule when things are beginning to click is even more exciting.

Sure, the Grizzlies are just 7-24 at home since the start of the 2014 season, but there is no time like the present to change that course as well.

“For us to feel like we’re playing better and better volleyball and be able to take that home and get back to the (West Auxiliary Gym), with the way the WAG felt when we played Sacramento State, I think we have more momentum than ever,” said Lawrence.

3. And Northern Colorado at just the right time? — Anyone who’s paid attention to Big Sky volleyball since the Bears joined the league prior to the 2006 season knows the trend. UNC picks up its play in October and opponents have to be near perfect to defeat the Bears in November.

Which makes this year’s Northern Colorado team out of the ordinary.

That’s not to say the Bears won’t sweep the Montana-Montana State road trip this week and go on a tear, but recent results suggest these Bears might not be those Bears. But always the qualifier: there is still time for Oates to work her magic.

“The UNC match is a really exciting one,” said Lawrence. “I think we match up against them well. They have a few physical hitters where we have a big block

“Ball control can be a weakness for them, and it has been for us as well, so I think whichever team is serving tougher will set the tone in the match right away.”

Northern Colorado has history on its side. The Bears have won six straight against the Grizzlies, three of which have been in Missoula.

“They play fast and have an athletic setter, but they don’t look as confident as they have in the past,” said Lawrence. “It feels like we’re starting to come into our own, so maybe we’re meeting them at the right time.”

4. Saturday a huge challenge — Sure, North Dakota has lost two straight matches for the first time in more than a year, but there is this: UND is still 19-4, still has Faith Dooley and Sydney Griffin, and still has won 13 straight matches against Montana. Set results from those matches: UND 39, UM 4.

About that record: Prior to last weekend’s surprising road losses, North Dakota had lost only twice this season, at Georgia Tech in what was UND’s fifth match in three days and to Cal Poly at Wisconsin-Green Bay’s tournament. The Mustangs are now 16-2 and ranked 24th in the nation.

About Dooley and Griffin: Dooley is the Big Sky’s top middle blocker. Griffin is on par with Sacramento State’s Kennedy Kurtz, who did much to lead the Hornets to a 3-0 win at Montana two weeks ago. Both were invited to the U.S.A. Volleyball’s Collegiate National Team tryout in Minneapolis last summer.

About that history: Montana and North Dakota first played in 2009, a 3-2 Griz victory in Missoula, before the Fighting Hawks were members of the Big Sky. UND returned to Montana the following year and won 3-2 in the WAG. It was the first of what is now 13 straight wins over the Grizzlies.

“Regardless if they just lost on the road, there is still this perception that North Dakota is the team to beat, and for good reason,” said Lawrence.

“They have two players who have been recognized nationally. That’s why they’re tough to beat, because they have those two players. The setter can run an up-tempo, physical offense. Then they have one of the best middles in the country. She’s a tough player to stop.”

Griffin ranks third in the Big Sky in assists (10.5/s), Dooley ranks second in hitting percentage (.384) and blocks (1.45/s).

North Dakota doesn’t have an individual who ranks in the top 10 in digs, but the Fighting Hawks lead the Big Sky in that category as a team (17.5/s). UND is limiting its opponents to .155 hitting, far and away the best mark in the league.

“If they are in rhythm and handling the ball well, they are pretty tough to beat,” said Lawrence. “So our focus has to be getting them out of rhythm.

“If we can serve in a way that limits the number of times they can use Faith and we can hold our serve through that, then I think good things can happen. It’s all going to come down to serving and passing with them.”

Around the Big Sky Conference:

* Three weeks of eight into the Big Sky schedule and North Dakota isn’t on top. The Fighting Hawks are not even leading their division. That’s what happens after a 0-2 UND road trip that left Idaho, at 5-1, atop the North Division and put Sacramento State, at 6-0 in the South, in the early driver’s seat.

* Idaho hosts Weber State and Eastern Washington this week, Sacramento State hosts Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, so the odds are both teams emerge this weekend still on top of their divisions.

* The Hornets will earn whatever they win at regular season’s end. Sacramento State plays six of eight on the road over the back half of its league schedule. Idaho plays six of its final 10 at home, starting this weekend.

* Southern Utah knocked off Eastern Washington in Cedar City on Saturday afternoon for its first Big Sky win of the season. Montana followed hours later with its first league win at Weber State. There are no more winless teams.

* Half of the Big Sky’s 12 teams are 1-5 or 2-4, with two more at 3-3. That’s good news for Montana as it tries to make its first Big Sky tournament since 2014.

Thursday’s schedule: ISU at EWU, WSU at UI, NAU at PSU, SUU at SAC

Friday’s schedule: UNC at UM, UND at MSU

Saturday’s schedule: UND at UM, UNC at MSU, WSU at ISU, EWU at UI, SUU at PSU, NAU at SAC

Upcoming: Montana will host Southern Utah next Thursday, Northern Arizona next Saturday, then face this week’s opponents on the road, North Dakota on Thursday, Oct. 26, Northern Colorado on Saturday, Oct. 28.