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Montana volleyball falls at Northern Colorado in straight sets

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GREELEY, Colo. – The result on Thursday was no different from the result on Tuesday, both 3-0 losses for the Montana Grizzlies. And while Allison Lawrence isn't looking for moral victories, she was encouraged by her team's response in Thursday's road loss to a Northern Colorado squad currently on top of the Big Sky standings (25-23, 30-28, 27-25).

Despite not winning a set, Montana pushed the Bears past the traditional 25 points in both Sets 2 and 3, with all three frames being decided by the minimum two points.

All this against a Big Sky power that has won 13 matches in a row over the Grizzlies, and in a gym that Montana has won in just once in its past 14 years.

"We have a lot of work to still do, but I thought our teams showed a ton of fight and response from Tuesday," Lawrence said. "From the moment we got to Greeley, there was a big change in how we prepared for the match. Our practice last night, even after a long travel day, was at a high level of execution, and then in scout and walk through today, we were really focused."

Following its loss to Montana State just 48 hours prior, Lawrence was frustrated with her team. The Grizzlies didn't play well and didn't compete the way they had for much of the preseason.

On Thursday, the performance was there, even if the final result still wasn't.

Montana got a look at what it takes to be at the top of the Big Sky Conference, facing a veteran Northern Colorado squad that has played in the past two Big Sky tournament championship games, winning the title in 2019. This year, UNC leads the Big Sky with nine wins after being picked to finish second in the league's preseason poll.

The Grizzlies were paced by junior right-side attacker Catie Semadeni, who tallied 11 kills on .360 hitting, in addition to three blocks. Senior middle blocker Peyten Boutwell also had 11 kills, in addition to a team-best five blocks, while sophomore middle blocker Ellie Scherffius (nine kills on .500 hitting, three blocks) and senior outside hitter Elsa Godwin (eight kills, 12 digs) were also weapons offensively.

All of that came after Montana hit .052 on Tuesday – its lowest hitting percentage in two years – and no players recorded more than six kills.

Sophomore setter Carly Anderson did a nice job distributing the ball on Thursday, totaling 38 assists, plus three blocks, while senior libero Sarina Moreno was one of three Grizzlies in double figures for digs (14), in addition to a huge serving run in the third set that produced two aces.

"I thought everyone played their part really well," Lawrence said. "Our ball control, in a lot of moments, allowed our middles and Catie to be one on one, and Carly did a nice job with her feet to create those opportunities."

Once the Grizzlies got settled in, they out-played the Bears in the opening set, falling behind by as many as seven points early, 14-7, before working back to get within a single point on several occasions. Boutwell had six kills in the first set alone, including an emphatic kill to cut the score to 21-19, before getting a block on the next point to force a UNC timeout.

After hitting .000 through the first 18 points, and falling behind 12-6, Montana recorded 11 kills and just one error from that point forward, in addition to out-blocking the Bears.

The second set featured 17 ties and nine lead changes, with neither team leading by more than three points. The Grizzlies jumped out to a 4-1 lead and recaptured the advantage, using a 4-0 run with defensive specialist Kelsey Nestegard at the service line (12-10). The two teams would be tied 13 times between 14-14 and 28-28 as the two team alternated points and went well past the traditional 25 points.

The Grizzlies fought off set points at 25-24 and 28-27 and had set-point opportunities of their own at 24-23, 26-25 and 27-26. Semadeni was key during that stretch, getting three of her kills during that time.

Ultimately, after being tied at 28-28, the Bears scored the final two points to win the marathon set, 30-28.

At first, it looked as if the Set-2 defeat had deflated Montana, which fell behind by as many as 10 points in the third set, 18-8. To the Grizzlies' credit, though, they continued to chip away and not only fought back but took the lead, holding a set-point serve at 25-24.

The Grizzlies used an 8-2 run to make the score respectable, before taking things a step further with Moreno at the service line. She rattled off six consecutive points, including two aces, which allowed Montana to hold a 25-24 lead, before falling by a final score of 27-25. Junior outside hitter Jackie Howell was also big in the third set, starting Montana's comeback at the service line before recording two kills and two blocks late in the set.

Montana, which posted its best non-conference record in 16 seasons, is now 0-2 to begin Big Sky play after taking on two of the top-four teams in the league's preseason poll. The Grizzlies return to action next week in Missoula, facing Idaho State (Thursday, 7 p.m.) and preseason favorite Weber State (Saturday, 2 p.m.).

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