MISSOULA — Montana volleyball coach Allison Lawrence was named Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year, the league announced Tuesday.
Lawrence joins Dick Scott in 1991 as the only grizzly trainer to have won the award.
It follows a record season for the Grizzlies. Lawrence has led Montana to most wins (17) and highest win ratio (.607) since 1999. The Grizzlies recorded double-digit Big Sky wins for the first time since 2013 and finished fourth in the conference, their best placing since 2010.
A team tied for seventh place earlier in the year has exceeded all expectations this season. It was enough to give Lawrence the voice of her fellow conference coaches.
“I think it was special because I always assumed that the team that wins the regular season would be coach of the year,” Lawrence said. “I just didn’t have any assumptions or expectations about being considered for it. It’s kind of like, I don’t even really have many words.”
While Lawrence may not have words for it, her coaching staff and team certainly do. Lawrence took over the Montana program in 2017 and inherited a team that had been 13-41 cones for the past two seasons. The Grizzlies had missed the conference tournament the previous two years and four out of six overall.
In her freshman season, Montana won eight games and again missed the tournament. It began to build in 2018 and 2019 as the Grizzlies finished both seasons with momentum and advanced to the Conference tournament. After a spring season curtailed by COVID, the Grizzlies would again qualify for the Big Sky tournament in 2021.
They had reached a point where it just didn’t feel good enough to be there. In 2022, with a roster full of returning players who have been with Lawrence for a long time, there was a feeling in the dressing room that this team could do something special.
Special would be underselling this season. Montana entered the final day of play in the league in second place. They end the season with the best win rate in 23 years, entering tournament winners in six of their last eight games. The team had plenty to celebrate this season, but Tuesday’s announcement was just another happy moment.
“I’ve been with her for so long and I’ve been through ups and downs and I think of just being able to celebrate those moments together and finally see some things on her side pay off and finally see her.” something gets recognition is so cool,” said senior Catie Semadeni. “It was so much fun to celebrate.”
The success of this team was far more than just the game plans and tactics. It’s about more than record-breaking stats and seasonal awards. Anyone who has seen them at the Dahlberg Arena knows that this is a team that plays for each other.
It’s evident in the celebrations on the bench, from a number of players doing the worm to chanting to their teammates on the floor. It’s clear when, after a game, win or loss, the Grizzlies stay on the ground to sign posters for the children in attendance and to speak to fans. It all starts at the top.
“I think culturally, she really shaped the team into something really positive,” said junior setter Carly Anderson. “That’s definitely a big focus for this team. We play best when we’re having fun. We’re easygoing and positive about each other, and I just wouldn’t want to play for any other program.”
Lawrence has now won 55 career games in charge of Montana, ranking third in program history. This season was full of superlative victories. One thing that has been overlooked is that Montana has not finished above .500 since 2013.
Lawrence, a longtime assistant at Montana, inherited a team that was 16 games under .500. Now Montana has finished six games for good. It’s not something that happened overnight. This has been built up for years. Associate Head Coach Dana Hallisey joined the program in Lawrence’s first season in charge and has been there every step of the way.
“I think where we are right now is such a testament to the people who are here currently, the people who have been here, but just the people who built into this thing and believed in it and believed in the vision that Allison created six falls ago,” Hallisey said. “It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever been apart of to see it get to this point where it’s thriving and functioning and growing and not a long way from it is on target.”
The Grizzlies enter the conference tournament as No. 5, taking on a Sacramento State team that had the advantage during the regular season. But Montana has grown to believe that they can play and beat anyone in the conference. Lawrence was instrumental in that.
Time will only tell what Montana does in the postseason this year, but the Grizzlies appear poised to return strong in 2023. Paige Clark and Carly Anderson, who were named first and second team All-Big Sky respectively, will be back in Missoula. They bring back several other key players from this year’s squad. As Hallisey noted, this is probably not the best version of Montana volleyball yet.
She quickly relayed the realization, diverting attention. Hallisey said she is one of the “most humble people” and someone who always strives to give back to others. The rest of the conference may have drawn attention this year, but players like Anderson – who called Lawrence winning a “duh moment” – and Semadeni, who has been with UM since 2019, know how special their coach is and how well – deserves the recognition it is
“I think we all know she deserved it. I think she’s the last person who would admit that or realize that,” Semadeni said. “It was cool for us to stand there and say, ‘We’re not surprised at all by that. You so deserve it.’ I think she saw that and the whole team was behind her as a coach and as a person and it was all so special. It was one of the coolest moments of my career.”
The team broke the news to Lawrence as they prepare for the Big Sky tournament in Ogden. They gathered beforehand and then brought in the coach and as a unit informed her that she had been named Big Sky Coach of the Year. The fact that they could do it together as a team and as a family made it that much more special.
“I think the coolest thing was the team and the way they surprised me with the news,” Lawrence said. “Dana (Hallisey) had called them all downstairs and they called and acted like there was a problem. Their minds start racing about what went wrong or who’s not feeling well or something really bad happened. So to get off that paranoia… I think getting the message from you was one of the best moments of my life.”
Clark, the league Top attacker, earned a first-team spot in every league, while setter Anderson was recognized in the second-team.
This marks the first time Montana has had two players on Big Sky’s first or second teams since 2009, when Jaimie Thibeault and Taryn Wright were honored. It follows Montana’s most successful season since 1999.
“These players have had such a notable impact on our program individually, but I think just two of those awards show how much respect the other coaches have for the athletics in our program and for what we do,” Lawrence said. “I think in particular what this team has done to improve and get better and compete.”