Washington State volleyball coach Jen Greeny can’t recall welcoming back a bigger group of experienced players in her eight years on the job.
The group has been instrumental in the program’s revival, highlighted by two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, both producing first-round wins.
Eight miles to the east, the personnel picture is much the same for the Idaho coach Debbie Buchanan. Six seniors return, four that earned All-Big Sky Conference honors, from a squad that shared the North Division title with North Dakota.
It’s shaping up to be a special season on the Palouse.
Here’s a look at the seven area programs as the season begins Friday for all but Whitworth, which opens next week.
The Cougars are stocked with familiar names, led by 2017 first-team All-Pac-12 outside hitter Taylor Mims. McKenna Woodford and Claire Martin are three-year contributors. Ella Lajos and Jocelyn Urias stepped into prominent roles last season.
Add in libero Alexis Dirige, the fastest player in program history to reach 1,000 digs, and starting setter Ashley Brown, and the Cougars have a wealth of proven players.
“You don’t have to start from ground zero,” Greeny said. “You can jump into a lot of the drills.”
The Cougars were picked seventh in the preseason poll, the same spot they finished last year despite injuries to several key players. They’re aiming higher with the goal of landing more favorable matchups in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re nowhere near where we want to be,” Greeny said, “but we’ve made some great strides to get Cougar volleyball back on the map.”
The Vandals were picked first in the Big Sky preseason poll, no surprise with a returning cast that includes Sarah Sharp, Alycia Wodke, DeVonne Ryter, Freeman High product Kaela Straw, Haylee Mathis and Reece Carman.
Outside hitters Sharp and Straw combined for nearly 700 kills in 2017. Sharp was first-team All-Big Sky. Straw and Ryter made second team. Wodke was the newcomer of the year.
“The team knows it’s awesome to be picked first, but we have a target on our back.” said Buchanan, whose team opens at home Friday and Saturday in the Idaho Volleyball Classic.
The key for the Vandals is error management and playing with consistency, Buchanan said. “Can our passing and defense keep up with what we need to do?”
The Bulldogs are an experienced outfit with five returning starters and six seniors, bolstered by grad transfers Perry Ramsey (North Carolina) and Peighton De Von (Shadle Park High, Nevada).
Eight of the top nine in kills return from last year, led by sophomores Sarah Penner and Chapin Gray.
“We have more weapons with more experience,” said coach Diane Nelson, who team was fifth in the West Coast Conference preseason poll. “We’ll be more physical than we’ve been and we’re deeper.”
The Bulldogs’ season-opening trip to Hawaii didn’t materialize because of the threat of Hurricane Lane. GU rerouted to Los Angeles and will face No. 11 UCLA on Saturday and Sunday.
The Eagles are rebuilding under new coach Leslie Flores-Cloud. EWU, which lost eight players from last year’s 7-18 team, is picked to finish last in the Big Sky.
Colfax High product Taylor Larsen, Alexandra Espinosa, MaKenna Davis, Catelyn Linke, Kahle Elliott and Northern Illinois transfer Samantha Boever provide the bulk of EWU’s limited experience.
“We’re trying to build a family and that starts with attitude and effort,” Flores-Cloud said. “It’s amazing how much buy-in they’ve had.”
The Pirates’ streak of three consecutive Northwest Conference titles was clipped by Pacific Lutheran last year.
“We had a really great offseason,” coach Kati Bodecker said. “They all have that same vision and goal of trying to reach the top of the conference again.”
Junior Emiko Kahler, a two-time All-NWC selection, is an MVP candidate. Senior Lauren Budde was honorable mention All-NWC last season. Setter Erin White returns after a one-year absence to concentrate on nursing school.
North Idaho College
The Cardinals are positioned to make a run at a third consecutive Northwest Athletic Conference East Division title behind division MVP Kayla Neumann (Sandpoint), second-team selection Hailee Etter (Shadle Park) and setter Haylee Templeton.
“With those two (Neumann and Etter) back, they’re going to be hard to stop,” coach Kelsey Stanley said. “We just have to make sure we can get the ball to our setter.”
Community Colleges of Spokane
CCS has offensive weapons in Joelle Mahowald (Lakeside), Taylor Gould (Cheney) and Alisha Straw (Freeman). The freshmen class includes the Russell triplets, Allie, McKenna and Lindsay, from Mead.
“These are some of the hardest-practicing players I’ve had in my time here (14 years),” said coach Jenni Hull, whose team was fourth in the NWAC East last season. “They’re competitive and they’re getting after it.”
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