MISSOULA — Montana capped its non-conference volleyball season in a big way on Saturday morning in Charleston, S.C., engineering a reverse sweep over Charleston Southern by winning the final three sets after falling in a 0-2 hole, 20-25, 22-25, 25-17, 25-22, 25-12.
The Grizzlies finished non-conference play with a 7-5 record, their most wins and best winning percentage in 17 years. It is the first time in 22 years that Montana has posted a .500 or better non-conference record in back-to-back seasons, after going 5-5 in 2021.
More importantly, to head coach Allison Lawrence, it gives Montana confidence going into Big Sky Conference play, after beating UNC Greensboro on Friday and Charleston Southern on Saturday.
"Before the match, we talked about what this match means to the program, and how we had an opportunity to set a different tone and do something that teams in our program haven't done in a very long time," Lawrence said. "They're showing belief and loyalty to the program, and what they're building is really impressive and fun to be a part of."
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There were a lot of notable standouts from Saturday's win, but atop them all was junior middle blocker Ellie Scherffius, who recorded a career-high 20 kills on .567 hitting (20-3-30). She is the first Grizzly to tally 20 kills and hit over .500 in a match since Lauren Gustafson hit .581 with 20 kills in October 2007.
On paper, Saturday's matchup didn't look favorable for Montana. Charleston Southern was playing on its home court, and was coming off of a sweep of the College of Charleston on Friday – the same Cougars team that swept Montana earlier in the day.
But the Grizzlies put together a strong performance, hitting .342 as a team while recording 10 more kills, 17 more digs and seven more blocks than the Buccaneers. They also were able to successfully side out above 60 percent in all five sets.
Despite the Grizzlies' strong efforts – Montana hit .357 in the first set and .341 in the second – they found themselves in a 0-2 hole after losing a pair of tight sets.
The Grizzlies were out-attacking and out-defending the Buccaneers, but the difference was at the service line, as Montana was minus-nine, being aced seven times and recording five errors of its own.
"They (Charleston Southern) were pretty in system those first two sets and we had errors at moments that hurt us, especially reception errors," Lawrence said. "They are a good, smart team, and we kept it close, just weren't able to finish sets.
"Still, I kept looking at what we were doing and felt like we were playing well enough to win. There was a lot of confidence at the Set-2 break, knowing we could still win the match."
The turnaround started early in the third set, as Montana got four early kills from Scherffius to take a 6-2 lead. At that point, Scherffius was up to 13 kills on 16 swings, without making an error.
Charleston Southern briefly tied the third set at 12-12 and 13-13, but following the second tie, Montana rattled off six consecutive points – getting three straight blocks from Scherffius and senior right-side attacker Catie Semadeni, in addition to back-to-back aces from sophomore outside hitter Paige Clark – to take control of the set. Montana's only deficit of the third set was after the first point.
Montana maintained a lead for most of the fourth set, as well, with the rare exception coming at 16-13, after the home team strung together three straight points.
The Grizzlies regrouped during a timeout, though, and then scored five of the next six points to reclaim the lead, getting two kills from senior outside hitter Jackie Howell and an ace from junior defensive specialist Sarah Ashley.
The fourth set remained tight, but Montana wouldn't trail again, forcing a fifth set for the first time this season.
The Grizzlies held a brief 5-4 lead in Set 5, but Charleston Southern seemingly erased all momentum by the break, building an 8-5 advantage as the two teams switched sides.
"Catie had a great look and great swing and just hit it a foot wide," Lawrence said of the final point before the teams switched sides, making the score 8-5 in favor of the Buccaneers. "I think even though we were down, we were so confident because we knew that what we were doing was working. We just had the mentality of, 'Let's go get the next point.'"
That, they did, as the Grizzlies scored five of the next six points, tying the score on kills from senior middle blocker Elise Jolly and Howell, and then taking a 10-9 lead on Ashley's third ace of the day, which forced a Charleston Southern timeout.
The two teams were tied at 10-10 and 11-11, but Montana then broke the stalemate with back-to-back points, including Clark's 19th kill of the match (13-11).
After Charleston Southern called timeout, Clark and Scherffius teamed up for a block to bring the Grizzlies to match point (14-11), winning the match two points later.
"I give the team so much credit," Lawrence said. "They executed the scouting report more and more as the match went on. Those adjustments started to create points for us in ways that became more and more visible, and our belief and physicality just took off."
Scherffius will rightly get high praise for her 20-kill performance. The middle blocker entered the week leading the Big Sky for hitting percentage, but totaled just nine kills compared to eight errors (.031 hitting) in Friday's two matches.
She bounced back in a big way on Saturday, also adding a team-high six blocks.
"Ellie was frustrated yesterday, obviously, but she's the kind of athlete who never gets tired and always finds another gear," Lawrence said of Scherffius. "We knew we needed to attack the ball in the middle zone of the net, and that opened up the game. We talked before the game about how we needed Ellie to have a big game and she rose to the occasion."
But the Grizzlies couldn't have pulled off the win without a team effort.
Clark recorded a season-high 19 kills on .318 hitting, in addition to three aces. Jolly posted 11 kills on .421 hitting. Howell had a season-high nine kills, plus a match-high 18 digs. Semadeni had a season-high five blocks, plus five kills. Four Grizzlies were in double figures for digs, including Ashley, who had a season-high 12, plus the three key aces.
In the middle of it all was junior setter Carly Anderson, who dished out a career-high 58 assists, also adding 12 digs, two kills and two blocks.
"The way she was able to distribute the ball to several hitters who hit at such a high clip is really impressive and is a testament to how she sees the court," Lawrence said. "She got the hitters the ball, and then the hitters put the ball away when it was there."