The Big Sky volleyball tournament starts Thursday on the Weber State campus in Ogden, Utah, and anyone who can pick the winner from this bunch might consider a trip to Vegas.

The eight teams that qualified have spent the past two months beating up on each other. Consider the following … and try to keep up:

— No team had fewer than three conference losses;

— The top seed had to be determined by tiebreakers, between Weber State and Northern Colorado, which each finished 13-3

— Montana State, Northern Arizona and Sacramento State each finished 10-6;

— Weber State split its two-match series with Northern Colorado and Portland State, the No. 3 seed;

— Portland State defeated Northern Colorado but lost twice to No. 6 Sacramento State and also lost to No. 4 Montana State;

— Sacramento State has defeated every Big Sky Tournament team except No. 5 Northern Arizona;

— Even No. 8 seed Montana, which finished 6-10 in the conference, has wins over Montana State and Sacramento State;

“If Montana is the eighth seed, that’s a dangerous eighth seed,” said Portland State’s Michael Seemann, who on Wednesday was named the Big Sky coach of the year. “You’re going to see what would be characterized as upsets, but nobody within the conference would even call it that at this point.”

The tournament begins at 10 a.m. Mountain Time with Sacramento State (16-11, 10-6) facing Portland State (17-9, 12-4).

Northern Colorado (21-6, 13-3) faces No. 7 Eastern Washington (11-13, 7-9) at 1 p.m.

Northern Arizona (12-13, 10-6) plays Montana State (14-13, 10-6) at 4.

The first day ends with top-seeded Weber State (18-8, 13-3) facing Montana (11-15, 6-10) at 7.

The Big Sky is a one-bid league for the NCAA Tournament. Northern Colorado has the best NCAA RPI at 66. No team will get an at-large bid, so the this tournament means everything.

Weber State favored?

Weber State is the defending champion and returns several key players, including sophomore outside hitter Dani Nay, who was named Big Sky MVP for 2021. Also back are senior outside hitter Rylin Adams, and senior middle blocker Sam Schiess.

Schiess leads the conference in hitting percentage at .328, and Adams, who has seven consecutive matches with double-digits kills, leads at 3.78 kills per set.

Nay excels through all six rotations. She averages 3.37 kills per set, leads the conference in total aces with 60 (second in the nation), averages 2.99 digs per set and has 32 blocks.

Weber State’s Dani Nay on the attack

“I would say, on paper, Weber State is the hands-down favorite,” Coach Lyndsey Oates of Northern Colorado said. “They were the preseason favorite. They have three or four fifth-year seniors after winning it last year.”

Coach Jeremiah Larsen, however, isn’t so sure his team is the clear favorite. Considering that Weber State went 3-3 in its final six Big Sky matches, Larsen’s concerns might be valid.

“I mean, we’re good, but I don’t think we’re as good as we need to be,” he said. “Our serve receive can be better. It, for sure, has kind of plateaued this season and not where we think we should be.

“In our league, most of the teams are really tough serving-wise, which really exploits you if you’re having a rough night passing.”

On the flip side, Larsen said his team has been consistent with its serve and has had success getting opponents out of system because of it.

Also for Weber State, some younger players have stepped up and played key roles. Freshman Makayla Sorensen has been a rock in the back row and has steadied the Wildcats when they have had issues with serve receive.

Sophomore right side Emma Mangum, meanwhile, has emerged as an offensive threat — 196 kills and a .241 hitting percentage — to take pressure off Adams.

“I think there’s excitement that comes into playing the conference tournament,” Larsen said. “They know what’s on the line. Since day one, we’ve talked about it’s not about winning the regular-season championship. It’s about winning the conference championship.

“So, hopefully, we’ve gotten steadily better and done the things that we need to do to be mentally and emotionally prepared for what’s about to happen.”

If Larsen believes his defense is the key to winning the title, Northern Colorado’s Oates will lean on her offense. Oates, in her 16th season, makes no secret that her Bears will live and die by their big swings.

Lyndsey Oates with her Northern Colorado team during a timeout

It has been working. UNC enters the tournament on a six-match winning streak and is the only team in the league that goes into the tourney having won more than two straight.

Senior Kailey Jo “KJ” Ince is the poster child for UNC’s aggressive approach. She has 331 kills (3.31 per set). Junior Rachel Hickman averages 3.03 kills per set from her outside spot. Fellow junior Makenzie Harris, also an outside, averages 2.86 kills per set.

Perhaps the key to the Bears’ attack has been the emergence of sophomore middle Lauren Strain, who is averaging 2.56 kills per set and hitting .307.

“Talk about hitting a heavy ball,” Oates said. “She hits probably the hardest ball I have ever had at UNC and is really doing a good job in the middle for us and really has been kind of a sparkplug for us.

“When we have had our best wins, it is because she is doing a really good job scoring and keeping us balanced offensively.”

Portland State coach Michael Seeman in a pre-match huddle

But not every team is supercharged by its “bigs.” Portland State has benefitted from the play of senior setter Ally Wada and junior libero Ellie Snook.

Snook leads the Big Sky in digs at 5.40 per set and was named the conference’s top libero for the second season in a row. Wada, on the other hand, is new to the program after transferring from San Francisco in January.

Wada has 785 assists — she had an eye-popping 62 in a five-set win over Grand Canyon in September — along with 255 digs and 19 aces.

Seemann said he and his staff often will sit down at the end of the week and discuss who the weekend’s unofficial MVP was. More often than not, he said, Wada is in the discussion.

“She had very little experience with us and with the team, coming in as almost a complete stranger and taking on the role as setter,” Seemann said. “I think it’s just huge. She just came in and hit the ground running.”

Of course, the Vikings can hit, too. Junior outside hitter Makayla Lewis (voted the Big Sky’s top newcomer after transferring from San Jose State) and redshirt senior outside hitter Parker Webb rank in the top 10 in the conference in kills per set.

“Portland State is just solid all the way around,” Larsen said. “I just really like their team. I think Parker Webb is one of the best players in our league, and (Lewis) is really good. She’s a player-of-the-year kind of candidate.”

Sacramento State a threat

Just one problem for Portland State. The Vikings will face Sacramento State in the first round, and the consensus seems to be that the Hornets are the team no one else wants to see. Sacramento State started slowly before righting the ship to win eight of its final nine.

“They’re playing much better than a six seed,” Oates said.

Added Larsen: “Sacramento State throws a wrench into the party. They’re playing really well right now and can compete with pretty much anybody.… And they have depth. They don’t just have one or two kids they rely on. When they’re on, they’re really on.”

Sacramento State coach Ruben Volta talking to McKenna Smith, left, and Ashtin Olin

Sacramento State hardly looked like a title contender — much less a team that even could make the tournament — when the calendar flipped to October.

Because of some injuries, Coach Ruben Volta was forced to shuffle his lineup quite a bit in the early going, estimating he used 13 different starting combinations. Once players started to mend, he found a lineup that suited the Hornets.

To help matters, the Hornets played seven of their final nine matches at home, including the last five.

“Obviously, this is the best we’ve been playing all year,” said Volta, who’s in his 14th season. “I think after a couple of the road losses in conference, the team really got together and talked about how they wanted to change and be better.

“And so, yeah, I feel like over the past three or four weeks, we’ve been playing our best volleyball.”

Home-court advantage might have helped the Hornets, but they also have no shortage of talent. Outside hitter Bridgette Smith is first-team all-conference and averages 3.40 kills and 2.61 digs per set and has 36 aces.

The Hornets are especially strong up the middle, where senior Cianna Andrews, sophomore Kalani Hayes and junior Tiyanane Kamba-Griffin combine to average nearly two and a half blocks and nearly four kills per set.

“I would say for the most part it’s an outside (hitter) dominant conference,” UNC’s Oates said. “But sometimes the X factor can be your middle.”

Montana State sophomore Emma Pence and freshman Jordan Radick, both 2021 All-Big Sky second teamers, also are a formidable tandem in the middle. Radick was named the conference’s top freshman for 2021.

Strain, Schiess and Eastern Washington junior Ashlyn Blotzer (second team) also could become that X factor in the middle for their respective teams.

Other wild cards

Sacramento State might not be the only darkhorse.

“I think the wild cards in this whole thing are Northern Arizona and Montana State,” Seemann said. “I know they see each other in the first round, but I think that’s such an interesting one to watch. Those teams are built very similar.”

Larsen said: “Montana State, we went five with them and barely got out of there alive.”

Northern Arizona ranks second in the conference in team hitting percentage (.225) and third in digs (14.84). Senior opposite Ryann Davis and junior outside hitter Taylor Jacobsen are forces at the net, with Davis ranking third in hitting percentage (.314) and Jacobsen second in kills (3.60).

Montana State is formidable on both sides of the net, ranking second in the Big Sky in blocks (2.36) — thanks in large part to conference leader Pence (1.37) — and third in hitting percentage (.219).

And not to be forgotten are Eastern Washington and Montana. Eastern Washington owns wins over the Grizzlies and Northern Arizona. The Eagles excel in serving, ranking third in the conference in aces per set (1.76), and freshman libero Noa Torino and junior middle McKenna Russell rank in the top 10 in the conference among individuals.

Montana, in addition to its wins over Montana State and Sacramento State, took Eastern Washington and Portland State to five sets. Sophomore setter Carly Anderson leads the Big Sky at 9.46 assists per set.

The Grizzlies also boast perhaps the conference’s most intriguing player. Freshman Paige Clark opened the season as a setter, but, after moving around the court and in and out of the rotation for the first month of the season, the 6-foot-1 Idaho Falls native was installed at outside hitter. She responded by being named to the Big Sky second team thanks to a strong all-around game: 2.37 kills per set, 23 aces, 117 digs and 24 blocks.

How the tournament plays out is anybody’s guess. But one thing the coaches can agree on is whoever advances to the NCAA Tournament is capable of winning a match or two.

“I think you could take five of us right now — and that’s not a slight to any of the other teams — I think between Weber, Northern Colorado, us, Northern Arizona and Sac State, we all have the ability to move beyond the first round,” Seemann said.

Larsen added: “For the most part, I think the top four or five teams in our league can compete with some really good volleyball teams across the country.”

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