Montana’s volleyball season ends with a loss in the opener of the Big Sky tournament

MISSOULA — The Montana volleyball team ended its season by losing to Sacramento State in the first round of the Big Sky tournament Wednesday afternoon in Ogden, Utah.

It was the third time this season that the Grizzlies lost to the Hornets in four sets. This time Montana jumped forward early before fading 19-25, 25-17, 25-21, 25-23.

Fifth-seeded Montana looked on course for a 2-0 set lead, but a big run by Sacramento State changed the dynamic of the game and ultimately resulted in a victory for the fourth-seeded Hornets.

“It’s heartbreaking and I will miss this team. I think the things that are being carried forward by this team and by these seniors are really exciting,” said UM coach Allison Lawrence. “I think the level we play at will only continue and grow. I think the hunger and belief not only to be in the conference tournament but to win the conference tournament will only increase.”

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The Grizzlies had a great defensive game plan to limit Hornet attackers and received several key contributions from Sarina Moreno and Jackie Howell to lead Montana to 70 digs across the four sets. But the Grizzlies were beaten, and a strong Hornets presence at the net resulted in 18 blocks.

Montana received a stellar performance from setter Carly Anderson, who helped massively on the defensive side with a team-high four blocks and eight digs. She also distributed the ball well, resulting in 40 assists, and grabbed a few kills.

As a team, Montana only managed a .067 as they struggled with the physical Hornets team. The Grizzlies had their most success with the two middle blockers, as Ellie Scherffius (11 kills to .476) and Elise Jolly (nine kills to .316) were the only grizzly attackers outside of Anderson to hit over .100.

The Grizzlies took a 16-12 lead in the second set in the most consequential game of the game. A challenge from Sacramento State tipped what would have been a 17-12 Grizzly lead. After that, Sacramento State scored 13 of the last 14 points of the set and finished on a 12-0 run to win 25-17. A match that had been well controlled by the Grizzlies suddenly changed.

“The serve was pretty unrelenting and we got stuck in a rotation that we couldn’t achieve without a good pass,” Lawrence said. “I think it was more the increasing pressure against a really good server. Once she ran more than three, I think the momentum really changed.”

The Hornets also grabbed the first three points of the third set, taking the streak to 15 straight. In a game where teams were separated by just eight total points, run may have been Sacramento State’s deciding factor.

The game was a heartbreaking end to an unforgettable season in Missoula. The Grizzlies have done things this season that haven’t been seen at Dahlberg Arena in decades, and the team’s legacy from 2022 will live on. They had their most wins (17) in 23 years.

“On one hand, we want to sit in that feeling and really feel it and make sure we tuck it away for an aggressive response when we get back to work in the spring,” Lawrence said. “But I also think that the further away the pain of this loss is from us, there’s just so much gratitude, caring and love that everyone has for each other and what we’ve been able to achieve this season.”

In their final sets as Grizzlies, Moreno, the program’s excavation career leader, and Elise Jolly, the high-impact transferr, kept it all on the ground. Moreno had 20 digs, finishing her season with a 465 and her career with a 1,885. Jolly had nine kills and a few blocks, hitting a .316 for the second-best mark on the team.

“These seniors really took the program through the biggest turning point in decades. Their legacy is that they completely turned this program inside out,” Lawrence said. “All of our success in the future has her hard work and today’s tears in it. I cannot thank them enough for what they have done, what they have achieved and what they have left behind.”