Moreno magic: Standout Missoula leads Griz to best season in two decades | Sports

The success of Montana Volleyball’s 2022 regular season is more than two decades in the making, and behind the wins is a Missoula native who has played volleyball most of her life.

Sarina Moreno is a redshirt senior libero for Montana and the second-oldest player on the roster. A Missoula native, she has known about Griz volleyball since the beginning of her volleyball career.

“In high school, I used to come to their games and watch (UM) play,” Moreno said. “So it was really fun to put on the jersey and play for them too.”

Moreno started Montana Volleyball Academy camps at age 10, discovered a love for volleyball early on, and carried her skills over to high school.

At Sentinel High School, Moreno became a standout almost immediately as she helped lead the Spartans to back-to-back Class AA state championships alongside former Griz and Sentinel teammate Elsa Godwin.

That team’s success, coupled with Moreno’s strong performance in four years at Sentinel at Libero, gave her the chance to play under the tutelage of a familiar face: her former club volleyball coach, Allison Lawrence.

Lawrence has seen Moreno grow as a player and has also seen Moreno’s love of the sport deepen. Also, when Lawrence spoke about Moreno last week after the team’s Thursday practice session, the head coach was emotional about the imminent departure.

“She means a lot to the program,” Lawrence said. “And when I moved to Missoula, she was young. She’s just starting her volleyball career as a very young person, I think 9 years old. And that’s how I believe I got to know Missoula, and I feel like my process of calling Missoula home was to watch her.

Lawrence coached Moreno during her time in club volleyball before becoming her college head coach in 2018.

Moreno’s first season as a grizzly was more than impressive. She recorded the most digs by a freshman in school history with 429 while also winning the third-most serving aces on the team. Unfortunately, the team would only go 10-21.

Montana Volleyball has not had a positive winning record since 2013. Moreno was in middle school at the time. Now the outstanding libero is leading the charge in a group of tried talent and strong young players for the first time since she was 13.

“I think sometimes you forget, but I just always try to stay positive and make a positive impact on and off the pitch,” Moreno said.

While the Missoula native has enjoyed success at both high school and college levels, she’s still searching for a Big Sky Conference title, something the Grizzlies have eluded since 1991.

With the team’s best start since 1999, Moreno will have a chance to complete a goal that has been three decades in the making.

However, it will not be at home. Moreno ended her home career with the Grizzlies on Friday against state rivals Montana State. But when asked how her last home game would feel, she staggered back.

“It’s exciting, but I’m mostly sad,” Moreno said of her last home game. “I don’t know how to explain it. I’m obviously excited and it’s cool that it’s against the Cats. It’s like the greatest rivalry of all time. So that’s really fun. But it’s also just a really sad feeling. And it’s starting to beat now.”

After Senior Day, she has a two-game test on the road. These next two games could put the Grizzlies in the top 4 of Big Sky’s rankings.

For Lawrence and Moreno, that journey of volleyball excellence is just two games away from completion. But the story goes on, at least for another former Sentinel star.

Sierra Dennison was a freshman in high school when Moreno was a senior. She saw the success of Sentinel volleyball and followed that instinct to Dahlberg Arena, where the red-shirt freshman learns to continue Missoula volleyball’s dominance.

“When I first started getting recruited here, having kids from Montana on this team and representing Montana was a big deal,” Dennison said. “And now that I’m here, I think it’s something that a lot of people from Missoula feel really connected to.”

Dennison will be the only Sentinel player next year, something Lawrence didn’t experience during her time as head coach. This transition will not only be a hit for UM volleyball, but also for Lawrence as she watches one of Missoula’s best enter a new era of life without volleyball.

“It’s hard to imagine the program without[the seniors],” Lawrence said. “It happens every year. And I think it’s a mixture of pride and sadness because it’s a loss. But it’s also such a win for the world they’re moving towards.”

But that era ends on a high note when Montana welcomed state rivals Bobcats to UM’s home finals.

The Bobcats held the Griz at bay for nine years, not allowing a regular-season sweep. Nine years ago, Moreno saw a Montana volleyball team with a winning record and a team that had beaten Montana State twice in one season.

With a chance at history, Moreno made magic. After three tight sets in which the Grizzlies missed a chance to sweep the Bobcats in three sets, the final set was dominant. The crowd in Dahlberg electrified as they cheered in droves to the sound of kill after kill scoring a hit on the opposing side of the pitch.

For Moreno, the 24-15 score in the last set of her home career cemented her chance for something remarkable. Griz senior Alicia Wallingford scored the final kill of Friday’s matchup, dropping it just wide of the net to sweep the Bobcats in the regular season.

Moreno broke out. Hugs from her teammates and cheers from a packed Dahlberg crowd only added to a meaningful win in what was a stellar volleyball season and a win that capped one of Missoula’s premier volleyball careers.

“I knew I would get the opportunity again,” Moreno said of taking her fifth year. “But this is my last try. I will never have the opportunity to play here again. So I just don’t take it for granted and play for the people around me and for myself.”

The Grizzlies take on Idaho State on November 17 before taking on Weber State in the regular-season finals in Ogden, Utah. UM has a record of 16-10 and the playoffs begin Nov. 23 at Weber State. Griz volleyball is currently in fifth place in the Big Sky standings.