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College volleyball: Surprising Gonzaga off to fast start in West Coast Conference

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 3, 2017, 6:42 p.m.

Gonzaga’s Sarah Penner celebrates against Arizona State earlier this year. (Gonzaga Athletics / Courtesy)
Gonzaga’s Sarah Penner celebrates against Arizona State earlier this year. (Gonzaga Athletics / Courtesy)

Three Inland Northwest volleyball teams are either in first place and/or unbeaten in their respective conferences.

That’s old hat for three-time defending Northwest Conference champion Whitworth and North Idaho College is used to being in the title-chase mix.

Now meet Gonzaga, 4-0 in the WCC for the first time in 27 years. Surprised? You have company.

“I’m saying the same thing, really?” cracked second-year head coach Diane Nelson, whose team entertains Pepperdine at 6 p.m. Thursday and Loyola Marymount at noon Saturday. “But you know what? My kids are figuring it out, our veteran players are picking up the load pretty good and keeping it going. Their competitiveness is coming out of them.”

Gonzaga lost six seniors from last year’s team, which tied for third in conference in Nelson’s first season. The coaches’ preseason poll pegged GU for ninth in the 10-team WCC. At one point, the Bulldogs were 4-7, but they’ve rattled off five straight wins, including the last four over the conference’s Bay Area schools.

Gonzaga has some experience with Faith Smith, Katelyn Oppio, 2016 redshirt Kaylie Loewen, Duke graduate transfer Alyse Whitaker, Tiyana Hallums and sophomore Jenna Kuehn, who recorded the school’s first triple-double in the rally scoring era (since 2001) in a recent victory over Saint Mary’s.

The Zags are also relying on freshmen Sarah Penner and Chapin Gray, who rank 1-2 in kills, and Abby Knapp.

“I haven’t had freshmen carry this kind of load before and it’s testing my patience, but you can’t complain about the wins,” Nelson said. “They’re coming through when they need to.”

The Zags have won four consecutive five-set matches.

“I’m not young any more, but it’s killing me,” Nelson said. “The great thing is the kids aren’t overwhelmed by it and they’re sticking it with it and persevering. That’s all you can ask for.”

Pirates share first place

Whitworth dropped its Northwest Conference opener to Pacific Lutheran, but the Pirates have responded with five straight wins, all 3-0 sweeps. They are tied for first with PLU and Pacific, which visits Whitworth at 6 p.m. Friday.

“It was just trying to figure out a little more about our group as a team and who our leaders were, trying to work through some chemistry issues,” said coach Kati Bodecker, who team went 3-5 against stout nonconference competition. “And learning what works for us and what doesn’t.”

Team captains Taylor Wicht, Cassandra Mendoza and Emiko Kahler have set the tone on and off the court. Mendoza’s 159 kills are tied for second in the NWC. Wicht’s 242 digs rank fourth and Kahler’s 122 kills are eighth.

Cardinals fly high

North Idaho College is 5-0 in the NWAC East Division, trailing only Columbia Basin (7-0). The best news for the Cardinals, who have battled through several health issues, is they’ve left room for improvement.

“Everyone is like, ‘Oh you guys are winning, doing really well,’ but we haven’t played awesome yet,” coach Kelsey Stanley said. “We haven’t really clicked yet. I’m thinking as long as we’re improving, by the time the (NWAC) championships come and we’re playing our best that’s what matters.”

Their best might be required this week. NIC entertains Spokane (4-1) at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the last of a six-game homestand. The Cards visit Columbia Basin on Friday.

Area roundup

Washington State (12-4, 1-3 Pac-12) returns home to face No. 25 Colorado on Friday and No. 17 Utah on Sunday. The Cougars lost twice last week and didn’t receive any votes in the AVCA poll for the first time this season. … Idaho (8-7, 3-1 Big Sky), which holds down second in the North Division, and Eastern Washington (5-8, 2-2) visit Southern Utah and Northern Arizona this week.


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