The University of Idaho volleyball team seems well positioned for its last run through the Western Athletic Conference and the beginning of another stint in the Big Sky Conference next season.
The Vandals went 2-0 last week while receiving some unexpected help from New Mexico State, which dropped a pair of matches and slipped from first to third. Seattle University (10-14, 7-2 WAC) and Utah Valley (13-11, 7-2), which entertains Idaho on Thursday, are tied at the top, followed by New Mexico State (11-10, 6-2).
Idaho (12-8, 5-3) is 0-3 against the top three teams, but has home matches remaining against New Mexico State and Seattle.
“This is a really important week for us,” said coach Debbie Buchanan, whose team visits Bakersfield (13-9, 5-3) on Saturday. “We have everyone healthy. We went two weeks with defensive specialist (Terra Varney) out with a concussion.”
The Vandals will have nearly everybody back – 12 of 14 on the roster – next season when they return to the Big Sky for the first time since 1995. The Vandals won four straight Big Sky championships from 1992-95 under coach Tom Hilbert and claimed two of the conference’s six all-time NCAA tournament victories.
Idaho joined the Big West in 1996 and won a division title under Hilbert before he left for Colorado State. Buchanan, who assisted Hilbert at Idaho and Colorado State, became head coach in 2000. She’s already guided the Vandals through a conference change when Idaho joined the WAC in 2005.
“It’s going to be a great move for us from the standpoint of all the traveling we’re doing (in the WAC),” Buchanan said. “Our fans are going to have an idea what matches are rival matches and they’re going to have more of an identity (with Big Sky opponents). They know who these teams are and I think it’ll draw more fans.”
The WAC, which lost marquee program Hawaii to the Big West in 2012, currently has a higher RPI than the Big Sky, but Buchanan wouldn’t be surprised if it reversed by the end of the season.
The WAC has nine members in nine different states, stretching to New Mexico, Missouri, Texas and Illinois. The Big Sky next season will have 12 teams, including regional foes Eastern Washington, Idaho State, Portland State, Montana and Montana State. It appears Idaho and EWU will be travel partners and the Sky will be divided into two divisions. Teams will play division opponents twice and the opposite division once for a 16-game conference schedule.
“It’s going to be a competitive conference,” Buchanan said.
With area teams at or near the midpoint of their respective conference seasons, Spokane, North Idaho and the aforementioned Vandals have the best shot at league titles.
Spokane (27-11, 7-1 NWAACC East) can tie Blue Mountain (31-3, 9-0) in the loss column with a road victory Nov. 1 against the Timberwolves. NIC (12-8, 5-2 SWAC) trails Salt Lake (6-0) and Southern Idaho (6-1). The Cardinals visit Salt Lake on Friday.
Whitworth (12-10, 6-4 NWC) is solidly in third place, trailing Pacific Lutheran (10-0) by four games. Gonzaga’s 0-2 week against conference powers BYU and San Diego dropped the Bulldogs (8-10, 4-5 WCC) into a three-way tie for fifth. Eastern Washington (7-1, 4-6 Big Sky) is tied for seventh. The top six advance to the conference tournament.
Washington State opened the season 13-0 but the Cougars have dropped six of eight in Pac-12 play. WSU visits USC and UCLA this weekend.
Alexis Olgard (Mead High) had 11 kills and hit .429 but USC (17-2, 7-1) lost to Arizona on Sunday and fell into a first-place tie with Washington. The Trojans slipped from No. 1 to No. 4 in the rankings. UW is No. 3. … Former Idaho coach Tom Hilbert has guided Colorado State to a 17-0 record and No. 12 ranking. Hilbert’s first 16 teams at CSU have played in the NCAA tournament.