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Whitworth volleyball chases NWC title

Northwest Conference volleyball has been dominated by four-time defending champion Pacific Lutheran and 2007-09 runner-up Puget Sound, but Whitworth has made it a three-team race this season.

The Pirates (10-5, 7-1 NWC) are tied for first midway through the conference schedule. Better yet, they have five of eight remaining NWC matches at home, beginning with the program’s biggest weekend in five years as co-leaders Pacific Lutheran (13-4, 7-1) and Puget Sound (12-4, 7-1) visit Friday and Saturday, respectively.

“We’re on a pretty nice roll,” said coach Steve Rupe, whose Pirates are pursuing their first NWC title since 2005. “I like our chances. I really thought we’d be in this position next year, so we’re a year early.”

If the last month is any indication, the Pirates will do just fine. They’ve won seven straight, including a five-set victory over Puget Sound. During that stretch, junior outside hitter Kaimi Rocha has established herself as a NWC player of the year candidate. Rocha (pronounced Row-sha), who was first-team All-NWC as a freshman, is the conference leader in kills (4.27 per set), second in hitting percentage (.280) and ninth in digs (3.27 per set).

“Part of the problem last year, I felt like I wasn’t having as much fun playing volleyball and this year it’s been all about having fun and working as a team,” Rocha said. “One of our big mottos is giving to others and to better your teammate. That’s been a big part of it. We’ve been practicing really well and everything we’ve been working on and trying to improve on we’re seeing in games.

“Mentally, we’re a stronger team. We stay focused, we go hard at the beginning and stay consistent and finish teams off.”

Rupe has seen vast improvement in a group of juniors, including Rocha’s twin sister, Ka’ipo, a middle blocker who is also on the Pirates’ track team.

“All of them went through a sophomore slump,” he said. “They were good as freshmen and didn’t realize how hard you have to work as sophomores. They came in a whole lot better shape this year.”

The Rochas are from Maui. They came to Spokane for a club tournament and stopped by Whitworth because one of their older teammates was being recruited by Rupe. They remembered the school when they started deciding where they wanted to continue their careers.

“We wanted a D3 type of school,” Kaimi said. “We visited a few other schools, but didn’t really like any of them and we started talking to (Rupe) more. A lot of coaches were constantly e-mailing me and pressuring me. Rupe was a little easier going and I felt comfortable talking to him. Everything kind of fell into place.”

That seems to be a theme for the 2010 Pirates. Libero Whitney Santos, who is from Wailuku, Hawaii, and played club ball with the Rocha sisters, has stabilized the defense after missing several matches, including three of the team’s five losses, with a concussion. Outside hitter Amanda Grumbach (Curlew High), a transfer from Walla Walla Community College, ranks among the team leaders with 114 kills, 26 aces and 141 digs.

The NWC often sends two teams to the D3 tournament, but Rupe has heard rumblings of a power play orchestrated by leagues back East (where the majority of D3 schools are located) that might lower the number of western representatives. Rupe said the odds of an NWC runner-up getting an at-large bid “are pretty slim,” which amplifies the importance of this weekend’s matches.

“We’re the underdogs because PLU and UPS have pretty much been 1-2 since 2006,” he said. “We’re going to play without any pressure and see what happens.”

Around the region

Washington State (6-9, 0-5 Pac-10) is the only team without a conference win and finding one this weekend won’t be easy. WSU visits co-conference leaders California, ranked No. 6, and No. 2 Stanford. … Eastern Washington (3-13, 2-4) will try to move up from seventh in the Big Sky with home matches against Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado. UNC, which beat EWU in the Big Sky tournament semifinals last season, leads the Sky at 6-0. …After going 3-1 during a four-game homestand, Idaho (9-9, 4-3) has four of its next five WAC matches on the road. The only home game in that stretch is against No. 4 Hawaii on Oct. 21. … North Idaho College’s Tina Strahinic, who had 31 kills in two matches, was named the Scenic West Athletic Conference player of the week. The Cardinals (18-5, 5-0) entertain second-place College of Southern Idaho (19-6, 4-1) at 3 p.m. Saturday.

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