There were a lot of promising signs from a young Montana volleyball squad that easily handled D1 (and formerly Big Sky conf. member) North Dakota in a pre-season exhibition game that was open to the public............ Had it been an actual game, the Griz would have swept NDak 3-0 in convincing fashion. Instead, Montana won four of the five sets (played because it was an exhibition), dropping only the final 15-point set by two points as third-year coach, Allison Lawrence ensured solid minutes for every rostered player.
The results are probably a surprise to most Big Sky volleyball followers. That’s because Montana — which last year made the post-season for the first time since 2014 — lost five players to graduation, most notably All Big Skt first team player, MyKaela Hammer. Additionally, promising sophomore Olivia Bradley transferred to Boise State (closer to home for her) and a promising frosh H. S. recruit backed out of her commitment. That leaves a short, 13-player roster, and a very young Montana squad for Lawrence to work with this season. Nine of the 13 rostered players are frosh (three RS frosh) who’ve never played a minute of D1 volleyball.
Three seniors — Ashley Watkins, Missy Huddleston and Janna Grimsrud — have considerable experience (Watkins and Huddleston as starters) and will anchor the squad while younger players get used to the college game. The only player not a senior or a frosh is sophomore Sarina Moreno (Missoula Sentinel) who started most of last season as defensive specialist. That means that a minimum of TWO freshmen will be on the floor during every minute of every game this season. The big surprise to me yesterday was to observe several that appear ready to step up.
Montana — a pre-season pick to finish 9th in the Big Sky — looked surprisingly solid against a North Dakota squad (14-18 last season) picked to finish 6th in the Summit League. And, though no stats were kept, I’m pretty certain Montana’s high scorer was a true frosh.
I confess that I am NOT all that astute as a volleyball analyst. But here are some early impressions.
••• Depth: Despite its youth, this Montana squad is the deepest I’ve seen over the past 6-7 seasons. There is no huge dropoff among the top 11 players. I believe that up to six freshmen will be part of Montana’s rotation.
•••Last season, sophomore DS Moreno (Sentinel) was the surprise frosh starter. Expect her to return as Montana’s back-court libero specialist. This year she’ll have plenty of help. RS frosh Casey Stites (Bozeman) and frosh Isabelle Garrido (Issaquah) provide instant mid-to backcourt defensive depth and setting skill. I’m thinking Stites will become a key part of Montana’s rotation. Garrido was a bit nervous yesterday, but seems to be capable of becoming a valuable player at DS as the year progresses. Redshirt 5-9 Kelsey Nestegard (Pullman) isn’t quite as quick defensively, but showed exceptional accuracy as a server… something that was a bit of a weakness last season. She may be an oft-used situational server.
••• It seems obvious that sr. Janna Grimsrud (6-1) will be a starting middle blocker, and she had a great day Friday, with several geat blocks to lead the defensive front line. The frosh defender I was most impressed with was 6-1 true frosh Kelly Horning (Post Falls) at the other MB position. She’s very mobile & active and did quite well moving into position for blocks or frontline digs.
••• The Griz are fortunate to have a leader in veteran sr. Missy Huddleston at outside hitter. She had a solid outing Friday and will likely be the experienced offensive anchor for the Griz. HOWEVER… three freshmen (depth, remember) were very impressive in their debut as Griz hitters: 5-10 Amethyst Harper (Fresno), 6-1 Catie Semadeni (Ft Collins) and redshirt 5-10 frosh Elsa Godwin (Sentinel) all had excellent debut offensive outings. Though no stats were kept, I’m thinking that Harper was the game’s high scorer. A bit undersized at 5-10, she easily makes up for lack of size with exceptional vertical leaping ability and had several misdirectional slams down the sideline that caught NDak defenders flat-footed. Semandi initially played a nervous game, but showed flashes of exceptional offensive ability… especially in directing slams to open spaces. Godwin, a redshirt, was the most experienced of the three and was everywhere on court. Grit, toughness and relentless movement marked her play. I liked how she anchored the court.
••• Not mentioned so far is senior Ashley Watkins, Montana’s most experienced setter from last season… because she did not play. So, I could say that the most impressive thing about Montana’s convincing win was that it was done without Watkins as the team’s veteran setter.
••• As usual for me, I’m always a pre-season optimist. But this is a very young team and they’ll absorb some lumps early. A good sign to me would be to see the Griz get some early upset wins in the three pre-season invitational tourneys. So… I like the way Montana played yesterday. If they can build on that with some early upsets, I think they have the personnel to make a return to the post season.
Lastly, I believe that coach Allison Lawrence has done a great job of turning this program around. Montana was at rock bottom when she was handed the job. I have watched quite a few Montana games over the past 6-7 years and believe coach Lawrence is daily, steadily and positively rebuilding the Montana Griz volleyball program and culture. The Montana team is starting to build a fan base of area high school and jr. high school volleyball teams, and it's neat to see how the Griz players never fail to "high five" and talk to young volleyball fans who are players themselves.
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