CHENEY, Wash. – For the fourth straight time, Montana traveled to Cheney, Washington, and battled Eastern Washington to five sets. Each time, though, Montana has fallen just short.
Saturday was particularly tough to swallow considering the Grizzlies were on the cusp of taking a 2-0 match lead early on. After winning the opening set, Montana then led the second set 23-17 and was hitting .500 without an error up to that point. The Eagles, though, scored 10 of the final 12 points of the set, fending off four set-point opportunities to tie the match.
"We knew Eastern would be a team that would push and scrap and find their way to make it a grueling, long match, because that's how our matches always are with them," head coach Allison Lawrence said. "I thought we did a lot of good things today, but to be up 23-17 (in the second set) and let a lead slip away really hurts.
"The team is hurting, but these types of feelings and setbacks need to make us stronger."
The two teams were then tied nine times in Set 3, including at 22-22, before the Eagles again won by two points. Both encouraging and maddening, nine of Montana's 15 set losses (60 percent) in Big Sky play have been by the minimum two points.
The Grizzlies responded to win the fourth set, hitting an impressive .429, before falling in the final frame.
In five previous five-set matches this season, Montana had played its best volleyball in the final set, out-hitting teams .456 to .150 and leading for nearly 90 percent of the sets. Saturday was a different story, though, as Montana fell behind early, 6-2, and could never catch up. The Griz gave away five points (three attack errors, two service errors) early in the set and were out-hit .364 to .167.
"They dug really well (in the fifth set) and their floor defense played behind their block at a higher level," Lawrence said of the Eagles in the deciding set. "They stole some kills and forced us into swings on long rallies."
Offensively, Montana had one of its best performances of the season. The Grizzlies' .283 hitting percentage was the third-best of the season, but bigger was that setter Carly Anderson had multiple weapons at her disposal.
Converted outside hitter Paige Clark recorded 21 kills on .294 hitting, the most kills by a Grizzly since 2019. Listed as a setter, Clark transitioned to an outside hitter earlier in the week and came up big in both matches. The freshman had a team-high 12 kills in Montana's 3-0 road win at Idaho on Thursday, before Saturday's 21-kill performance.
Clark was one of four Grizzlies in double figures for kills. Junior Catie Semadeni recorded a career-high 16 kills at a .297 clip, while senior middle blocker Peyten Boutwell added 13 (.276 hitting) and junior outside hitter Jackie Howell totaled a career-best 11 (.265 hitting).
With three pin hitters reaching career highs for kills, as one would imagine, Anderson also had a personal-best 56 assists, to go along with five kills, three aces and eight digs.
"To have our left side show up the way they did this week, that's a huge positive outcome from the weekend," Lawrence said. "We got more kills from the left than we have all season, and Catie continues to dominate on the right. Peyten had two great offensive matches this week, as well. All of that gives us a ton of confidence that we continue to increase our depth in offensive areas, which was an area that had been really inconsistent lately."
As a team, Montana recorded a season-high 73 kills (14.4 per set, after coming into the match averaging 12.13). The Griz also recorded 72 digs (second-most this season), led by senior libero Sarina Moreno (23).
The match started out as good as the Grizzlies could have hoped, with Montana scoring seven of the first eight points and forcing an early Eagles timeout. After Eastern Washington responded and led by as many as four points at 16-12, Montana again found its groove.
Two kills from Howell and another form Boutwell cut the deficit to 16-15 coming out of a timeout, before Montana got a big cross-court kill from Clark to take a 20-19 lead. The lead continued to grow, as the Grizzlies got another kill from Clark and an ace from Anderson to lead 23-20, before winning 25-21.
After ties at every point from 6-6 through 13-13 in the second set, Montana got a dump kill from Anderson and an ace from Howell to jump in front 15-13. Shortly after, the Grizzlies got back-to-back kills from Semadeni to take a 21-16 lead.
Montana, which was hitting .500 late in the set, didn't make its first attack error until it had already scored 23 points. However, after recording 12 kills and zero errors to start the set, the Grizzlies were held to two kills and four errors down the stretch, which allowed Eastern Washington to turn a 23-17 deficit into a 27-25 win. Montana had its first of four set-point opportunities at 24-21, but couldn't close out the set.
The third set featured nine tie scores, as late as 22-22, but Eastern Washington was able to win the set late behind .353 hitting.
Both teams were hitting lights out in a back-and-forth fourth set. Clark gave Montana a 19-18 lead, which expanded to 22-19 after two more kills by the freshman and an ace from Anderson. Montana won the set on a Semadeni solo block, with the Grizzlies hitting .429 in the frame.
The Grizzlies never led in the fifth set, falling behind early, 6-2, and never being able to overcome five early errors.
The Grizzlies will return to the court Thursday vs. Portland State (7 p.m.) before a Saturday match vs. Sacramento State (7 p.m., following the Griz football game vs. Sacramento State).
"Eastern kept scrapping and finding ways to respond, and I thought we did too," Lawrence said. "Our game is changing week to week and we continue to add elements to it that will help make us better as the season progresses."