Success didn’t come overnight for the Washington State University volleyball program.
It’s been a slow, steady build under coach Jen Greeny that resulted in 2016’s breakout season. The Cougars won 22 matches, their first 20-win campaign since 2002. They returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009 and then won their opening-round match. Eleven Pac-12 wins was their most in 15 years.
The goal this season is to show staying power in the nation’s toughest conference, and early indications are encouraging. The conference preseason poll put WSU at No. 7, its highest ranking since the Pac-10 became the Pac-12 in 2011. The Cougars received votes in the AVCA Coaches poll after finishing 24th last year.
“It definitely takes a while to sustain the success, just the way recruiting happens to go,” said Greeny, the reigning Pac-12 coach of the year entering her seventh season. “As far as work ethic and the way the team is mentally, it’s so much better and has gotten better every single year.
“Our team culture is in a really stable place as far as what we want. The upperclassmen know what we’re looking for and they’re really great about passing it on to the new players.”
The offseason saw Taylor Mims, McKenna Woodford and Casey Schoenlein play on U.S. Collegiate National teams and Jocelyn Urias compete for the Mexican National Team.
Mims, Woodford, Schoenlein, Urias, Claire Martin and Ella Lajos should see time up front with several players capable of seeing time at middle blocker or on the outside. Setter Nicole Rigoni and libero Alexis Dirige are returning starters.
WSU is taking a by-committee approach to replacing Kyra Holt, who finished No. 2 on the program’s all-time kills list. Holt, who played professionally in Puerto Rico in the spring, is a grad assistant.
The Cougars, led by Mims and Martin, ranked No. 1 nationally in total blocks last season. Greeny expects that to continue but wants to see improvement offensively and defensively.
Here’s a look at area teams with the season opening Friday:
The Vandals return talented setter Haylee Mathis and firepower with outside hitters Sarah Sharp and Kaela Straw (Freeman High) and middle blockers Torrin Crawford and DeVonne Ryter.
Back-court options include Klaree Hobart (Lewiston), Delaney Hopen, Alycia Wodke and Maura Donovan (Coeur d’Alene).
“We have a lot more experience with our juniors and seniors and we’re really physical from an offensive standpoint, playing high above the net,” said coach Debbie Buchanan, whose team was seventh in the Big Sky preseason poll.
Setter Megan Ramseyer (Coeur d’Alene) transferred to Irvine Valley College.
The Eagles, picked ninth in the Big Sky preseason poll, have nine newcomers and two returning starters. Middle blocker Chloe Weber led the Eagles in blocks (81) last season while outside hitter Ashley Seiler (Cheney) produced 202 kills.
“We’ll be working a couple of different lineups because we haven’t had one player yet that has stepped up way above and beyond,” coach Michael King said of playing in UNLV Invitational on Friday and Saturday. “We have a lot of players and a lot of depth.”
The Zags lost a ton with six seniors moving on but they brought in a promising freshmen class.
“We lost some key components, but that’s the nature of it,” coach Diane Nelson said. “The beauty is we have kids coming in that played with the best of the best at the club level and they’re unfazed in practice.”
Freshmen Abby Knapp, Gretchen Rudel, Chapin Gray are candidates to start. Setters Faith Smith and Jenna Kuehn combined for 941 assists last year and Tiyana Hallums contributed 277 digs. Kaylie Loewen, who started in 2015, returns after a redshirt season.
It’s no surprise the three-time defending Northwest Conference champion Pirates are the favorites in the preseason poll.
Outside hitters Emiko Kahler and Cassandra Mendoza (Tekoa-Oakesdale) earned All-NWC honors last year. Corinne Bell anchors one of the middle blocker positions and Gracie Meiners steps in at setter.
“I like their leadership and experience,” said Kati Bodecker, NWC coach of the year each of the last three seasons. “We don’t have to spend a lot of time breaking down skills, we can jump right into strategy and competing and playing at a higher level.”
North Idaho College
The Cardinals shared the East Division title with Walla Walla in their first season in the NWAC.
“It’s all about ball control in the NWAC so that’s definitely something we’re focusing on,” coach Kelsey Stanley said. “I’d say 90 percent of our girls can go back and pass.”
Sophomores Kelsie Murray, Halle Hess, Kaitlyn Christensen, Ireland Mayfield and Rachel Leshikar should lead the way. Top newcomers include freshmen Hailee Etter (Shadle Park) and outside hitter Kayla Neumann (Sandpoint) and Vanguard transfer Chelsea Taylor.
Community Colleges Of Spokane
The Sasquatch have a solid foundation with setter Kendall Collins (University), Alisha Straw (Freeman), Joelle Mahowald (Lakeside), Ryley Sinclair (Mt. Spokane), Cali Clark, Taylor Gould (Cheney), Kaitlin Ramsey, Hadley Stratton (Newport), and Jessi Reed (Wilbur-Creston).
“They’ve already made such strides in a few weeks,” coach Jenni Hull said. “We have some firepower, we just need to put it all together.”
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