A quality record, a good feel for new lineup combinations and a ton of frequent flyer miles.
Washington State’s preconference volleyball schedule took the Cougars across the country twice and to the Midwest once, accumulating roughly 14,000 air miles. The Cougars put together an 11-1 mark and they’re receiving votes in the AVCA poll, same as in the preseason rankings.
Now, the road trips become shorter and the opponents become tougher. WSU entertains No. 7 Washington at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Bohler Gym to open the 20-game Pac-12 Conference schedule. The match will be televised on Pac-12 Networks-Washington.
UW (10-1) was the preseason Pac-12 favorite. Defending national champion Stanford and Oregon, both under new head coaches, are title contenders and four more conference schools are in the Top 25.
“It’s nothing different, everybody’s good,” said Jen Greeny, who picked up her 100th win as WSU head coach during the Missouri State Invitational last weekend. “There’s never an easy match or easy weekend.”
The Cougars’ lineup is an amalgam of new faces (freshman setter Penny Tusa and Oklahoma transfer Ashley Brown), familiar faces in new positions (Taylor Mims from middle blocker to outside hitter, MB Claire Martin to opposite and outside hitter Casey Schoenlein to opposite), familiar faces in the same positions (OH McKenna Woodford and libero Alexis Dirige) and familiar faces elevated to prominent roles (middles Ella Lajos and Jocelyn Urias).
The Cougars have retained their blocking prowess with size across the front in the 6-foot-4 Woodford, 6-3 Mims, 6-3 Lajos, 6-3 Urias, 6-4 Martin and 6-5 Schoenlein, who has been sidelined the last few weeks with an injury. WSU ranks second nationally in blocks per set after leading the country in total blocks in 2016.
The offense has been solid but there’s room to improve, according to Greeny. WSU is hitting .255, last in the Pac-12 but 44th nationally.
“We’re probably one of very few teams in the country that had four pretty good middles (last season),” Greeny said. “Just moving forward to fill those gaps from last year’s graduation we needed to move some pieces.”
The changes could help the Cougars combat the potent offenses they’ll encounter in Pac-12 play.
“Taylor is incredibly athletic, she could probably play any position,” Greeny said. “She’s really getting used to the tempo and those out-of-system balls as a middle you never get. We think (moving Martin to RS) is a good choice as far as trying to slow down outside hitters in this conference. It’s a pretty different position to be in instead of the middle, but I thought she had a much better tournament offensively at Missouri State.”
Home sweet home
Conference play begins this week for the four D-I schools and all seven area programs have at least one home match.
Gonzaga (5-7) opens WCC play with visits from Saint Mary’s on Thursday and Pacific on Saturday. Idaho (5-6) entertains Montana State on Thursday and Montana on Saturday. Eastern Washington (3-6) faces Montana on Thursday and Montana State on Saturday. WSU faces Arizona in Tucson on Saturday.
Three-time defending Northwest Conference champion Whitworth (4-6, 1-1) is home versus Whitman on Wednesday and Willamette on Friday.
North Idaho College (12-5, 2-0 NWAC East) takes on Blue Mountain on Friday and Yakima Valley on Saturday at Christianson Gym. The Cardinals’ first six East Division matches are at home and their last six are on the road.
Community Colleges of Spokane (18-3, 1-0) visits Walla Walla on Wednesday and entertains Columbia Basin on Saturday.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.