Football isn’t the only program at Idaho to travel a long, winding road since the school left the Big Sky Conference in 1995.
Vandals volleyball had fairly successful stints in the Big West (1996-2004) and the WAC (2005-2013). Idaho won a Big West divisional crown in 1996. UI advanced to NCAA tournaments in 2003 and 2004 under current coach Debbie Buchanan.
The Vandals had a string of upper-division finishes in the WAC but never advanced to the NCAAs. Now they’re back in the Big Sky, where the program hopes to pick up where it left off. Idaho won four straight Sky titles from 1992-95 under former coach Tom Hilbert and earned two of the conference’s six all-time NCAA wins.
“It’s a great move for us, considering the WAC was going with nine teams in nine states,” Buchanan said. “Now we’re in a conference with more teams and definitely being in this region we have some rivals across different borders. The travel is going to be easier and in the long run I think the Big Sky will be more competitive top to bottom.”
The conference will have two six-team divisions. Idaho and Eastern Washington join Montana, Montana State, North Dakota and Northern Colorado in the North Division. The South consists of Sacramento State, Northern Arizona, Portland State, Idaho State, Southern Utah and Weber State.
Idaho and EWU will play North foes twice and South opponents once in a 16-game conference slate. The top eight based on conference winning percentage advance to the Big Sky tournament at the site of the regular-season champ.
“There’s no question there’s a rivalry (with Idaho) in terms of the proximity,” EWU interim coach Michael King said. “They’re going to help strengthen the level of the conference.”
Idaho is 5-1 against Big Sky teams the last three seasons.
“We’ll continue to train our team with what we think is important and play a competitive preseason to make sure we’re challenged and playing some top teams that prepares us for conference,” Buchanan said.
The move to the Sky doesn’t change Buchanan’s approach to recruiting. “We’re still going to go after the top kids that we feel can play at our level,” she said.
Seven area teams begin their 2014 seasons today. Here’s a look at each team:
The Cougars had their best season since 2009 with 18 wins and five Pac-12 victories. That didn’t impress conference coaches, who projected WSU 11th in the preseason poll.
“Of course I think we’re better but the conference is better as a whole,” coach Jen Greeny said. “A lot of times preseason polls are based off last year’s finish. We’re definitely ready to prove that wrong.”
WSU has a strong group of returners, including outside hitters Jaicee Harris, Emmy Allen and Kyra Holt, middle blocker Ver’Leea Hardaway, defensive specialist Shawna Lum and setter Haley MacDonald. Holt was named to the preseason All-Pac-12 team.
Casey Schoenlein, a 6-foot-5 outside hitter, could be an impact freshman.
“I think we’re gaining and that showed at the end of last season when we upset USC and beat Cal on the road,” Greeny said. “Now we have to get some significant wins in the Pac-12.”
GU, like WSU, is coming off a season with significant breakthroughs. Gonzaga went 7-11 in conference, the program’s most WCC wins since going 6-8 in 1996. Lewiston High product Savanna Blinn made All-WCC, the first Bulldog to do so since Tracy McKinney in 1994.
The Bulldogs are picked to finish eighth out of 10 in the WCC.
“I don’t know what it’s going to take to get a little more respect, other than to have a couple seasons in row where we’re pretty competitive from start to finish,” coach Dave Gantt said. “So after one of those seasons there’s still some questions in all the coaches’ minds.”
There’s no questioning what Blinn did as a sophomore. She had 400 kills and a .330 hitting percentage, second best in program history.
“She’s done everything we’ve asked her to do,” Gantt said, “but I really think the key for us to go to another level is the supporting cast needs to elevate their level of play. From what we’ve seen in fall practices we’re ready to do that but we all know it’s still on paper.”
Setter Lauren Joseph, middle blocker Imani Wimbush and outside hitters Jordan Gasser and McKayla Ferris return. Gantt has been impressed with freshmen Nikki Leonard (setter) and Kaylie Loewen (OH).
The Eagles, picked seventh in the Big Sky preseason poll, have an interesting mix with five returning starters and eight incoming freshmen.
“I believe whole heartedly we can be toward the top end of the conference if we do the right things and people stay healthy,” said King, filling in for Wade Benson, who took a leave of absence to continue treatments for throat cancer. “Fans are going to see a passionate group on the floor.”
Allie Schumacher, All-Big Sky honorable mention last season, Kelsey Julian and Talia Fermantez lead the list of returners. Melissa Waelter, who missed half of the 2014 season with an injury, and J.C. transfer Ana Jakovljevic add firepower at outside hitter.
“To really gel as a group is the top priority,” King said. “For us it’s about getting better every play, every day.”
The Vandals, third in the Big Sky preseason poll, might have the best shot at a championship of any team in the region, thanks to a seasoned roster featuring setter Meredith Coba, senior middles Alyssa Schultz and Stephanie Hagins, and outside hitters Katelyn Peterson, Ali Forde and Jessica Hastriter.
“Schultz should be a dominant player in the Big Sky,” Buchanan said. “Both our middles are going to be go-to kids.”
Jenna Ellis and Terra Varney are back as defensive specialists. Outside hitter Tineke Bierma is healthy after missing nearly all of last season with a knee injury.
The Pirates, third in the Northwest Conference last year, are picked third this season behind two-time champion Pacific Lutheran and Puget Sound. Whitworth went five sets with PLU twice last season.
Names to watch are setter Maddye Dinsmore, outside hitter Nicole Leonard, Lewis-Clark State transfer Mallorie Schoesler (West Valley), middle blocker Brenna Bruil and defensive specialist Elizabeth Ginley.
“It was a little easier with a complete recruiting season and players who know what our system is,” second-year coach Kati Bodecker said. “It’s nice having a group of returners that are familiar with my coaching style and expectations.”
A year ago NIC was picked fourth in the tough Scenic West Athletic Conference but surprised many en route to a sixth-place finish at nationals. The Cardinals face a similar scenario this season: They’re picked fourth again.
“We have a completely different group and because we’re so young it doesn’t surprise me,” new coach Kelsey Stanley said. “We’re not going to come out in the first 2-3 weeks and dominate, I know that. I’m hoping we build on things and learn from our mistakes.”
NIC will rely on sophomores Maddi Seidl, Kennedy Chadwick, Brittany Aldridge and Western Wyoming transfer Dzeni Hadzisehovic, a 6-4 right-side hitter.
Community Colleges of Spokane has 10 returners, the most in head coach Jenni Hull’s 10 seasons.
Mainstays include Jacy Vining (Colville High), Madison Zinsli, Emily Russell, Jenna Widman (Lakeside) and Korrie Stephenson. Zinsli was second-team All-NWAACC East Division last season.
“I’m really excited about our energy,” Hull said. “We meshed well together, took third place last year and we’ve had a great offseason. I’m excited to see where this season can take them.”