Ready or not, conference play is here for a couple of area college volleyball teams and fast approaching for several others.
Eastern Washington and Whitworth dive into league play this week, both on the road. The Eagles (1-8) have had a rocky, injury-plagued nonconference season, but hope to find their stride against Big Sky Conference rivals Montana and Montana State this weekend.
“We’ve played nine matches and probably had seven or eight different starting lineups,” EWU coach Miles Kydd said. “We played Cal Poly with a lineup I never expected us to be playing, middles playing outside, but we cobbled it together and most everyone got a chance to play.”
The Eagles haven’t won since their season opener Aug. 27. Senior Alysha Cook returned last week from a torn back muscle, but junior Cora Kellerman won’t play this season for medical reasons. Right-side hitter Shelby Puckett, who has a team-high 92 kills, has moved to the left side to get more swings.
“We have to get our brain wrapped around the fact that the preseason is done, let’s move on,” Kydd said. “We’re going to try to simplify things a little bit and try to get into a bit of a groove.”
The Big Sky race appears to be wide open. Defending regular-season champion Portland State features Whitney Phillips, whom Kydd calls the best player in the conference. Montana shared the top spot with PSU in the preseason poll. Northern Colorado, which won the Big Sky Tournament last year, has the best nonconference record at 8-2, followed by upstart Idaho State (7-3).
“Our goal is to get to the conference tournament and see what we can do from there,” Kydd said.
Whitworth will find out quickly where it stands in the Northwest Conference. The Pirates visit four-time defending champion Pacific Lutheran and 2009 runner-up Puget Sound this weekend.
“We actually start league with five of six on the road,” coach Steve Rupe said. “If we can weather that and be in good shape I think it sets up very well for the rest of the year.”
Elsewhere, Idaho opens WAC play at Fresno State on Friday, Sept. 23, Washington State begins Pac-10 action versus Oregon the following day and Gonzaga tips off the WCC at San Diego on Sept. 30. North Idaho College’s Scenic West Athletic Conference opener is at rival College of Southern Idaho on Sept. 25. Community Colleges of Spokane opened its NWAACC East Division schedule with a win last week.
Home sweet home
Twelve matches into the season, Gonzaga finally gets a chance to play at home. The Bulldogs host the Zags Classic at the Martin Centre, with matches against Wyoming on Friday and Seattle and Idaho on Saturday. Gonzaga has dropped seven straight, prior to Tuesday’s match at Washington State.
Meanwhile, Idaho has only been on an airplane once this season. The Vandals (4-4) played three home matches last week, three at nearby Washington State and will get in three more at Gonzaga this weekend.
“It just worked out that way,” UI coach Debbie Buchanan said. “There were some opportunities to play some teams from different conferences within our area. We do have a younger team so we’re not missing a ton of school so far and we can get into the gym and practice. I think that’s a benefit.”
Former Sandpoint Bulldogs are making their mark as freshmen in the Big Sky. Kortney James has three double-doubles (assists, digs) as a starting setter for Montana. She ranks third in the conference at 8.38 assists per set. Outside hitter Piper Wahlin has 35 kills and 36 digs in Weber State’s first 11 matches. … WSU’s Meagan Ganzer leads the Pac-10 in kills (5.91 per set) and points (6.41). Oceana Bush, a Lewis and Clark High grad, is second in digs (4.41 per set). … Gonzaga senior Allyson Powell is 40 digs away from reaching 1,000 for her career. Powell has 162 digs this season. She would become the 11th Bulldog to reach 1,000. … North Idaho College’s Tina Strahinic ranks second in the NJCAA at 4.51 kills per set.