Coaches generally don’t put much stock in preseason polls, which is probably for the better given the gloomy projections for the area’s four Division I volleyball teams.
But each program could make a case they’ve been undervalued.
Washington State returns six starters from a team that won 16 matches, the second most in the last 13 years. The Cougars were picked ninth, their highest since the Pac-10 became the Pac-12 in 2011.
“I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to it but it’s definitely a good sign from outside sources that they think things are going in the right direction,” sixth-year coach Jen Greeny said. “We know we’re going in the right direction.”
Gonzaga, picked ninth in the WCC, has had back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1989-90. Idaho is the defending Big Sky North Division champions with a 13-year streak of finishing at or above .500 in conference. Eastern Washington was 8-2 in conference at one point last season and made the Big Sky tournament for the first time since 2011.
Idaho was selected sixth and EWU eighth in the Big Sky poll
Here’s a look at area programs:
The Cougars hit practice running with 12 returners, led by Kyra Holt. The 2015 first-team All-Pac-12 selection led WSU with 35 service aces and ranked sixth in the Pac-12 at 3.91 kills per set. The senior is already in the school’s career top 10 in kills, points and aces.
Outside hitters Holt and McKenna Woodford, who earned Pac-12 All-Freshman honors last year, combined for 776 kills last season.
“That’s a great core,” Greeny said, “especially as six-rotation players.”
Casey Schoenlein and Hailey Bethune are options at right-side hitter. Setter Haley MacDonald is a two-year starter. Setter Nicole Rigoni transferred from EWU last January.
GU lost significant firepower with the graduation of two-time honorable mention All-American Savannah Blinn and Jordan Gasser, but returns accomplished outside hitters Emmy Allen and McKayla Ferris, and Imani Wimbush has moved outside from middle blocker.
Paige Folger is a mainstay in the middle and sophomore Faith Hill had a team-high 673 assists last year.
“We’re going to rely on middles more than ever have,” first-year head coach Diane Nelson said. “Our passing is going to dictate whether we can run our middles so we’ve put heavy emphasis on serving tough and passing tough.”
The Vandals are a bit of a mystery with a lengthy injury list, six newcomers, 11 underclassmen and just one senior.
OH Becca Mau is returning from hip surgery and Freeman High product Kaela Straw is dealing with a nerve issue in her foot. Three of the six incoming players have had surgery in the last eight months.
“There’s a lot of unknowns,” coach Debbie Buchanan said. “We’ll have (Mau and Straw), it’s just a matter of how much they’ll be able to go in the preseason.”
Haylee Mathis, who redshirted at WSU in 2014, and freshman Megan Ramseyer, coming back from a torn ACL during her senior season at Coeur d’Alene High, are competing at setter.
The Eagles return three starters – OH/RS Jessica Gilbert, setter Sophie Miller and MB/RS Chloe Weber – from a 14-win squad. Gilbert had 227 kills last season and Weber added 112. OH Ashley Seiler (Cheney High) is expected to be a contributor.
Miller led the team with 557 assists in 2014 before playing several positions last season. Among the newcomers is Regan Harr, who helped College of Southern Idaho to junior college national championship.
“I like how they compete every day,” coach Michael King said. “We have great talent, probably as good if not better than last year, but the thing we’re lacking is experience and playing together on the court.”
The two-time defending champions should be in the mix for another Northwest Conference title, but they’re also aiming for better results nationally.
“We really want to become more of an offensively dominant team, a team that can side-out quickly and really has a lot of power,” said coach Kati Bodecker, whose team had made two straight first-round exits at the D3 tournament. “While we’ve always been a strong defensive team, in order to continue to excel and compete at the national level, we focused on recruits that are a little bit bigger, a little more powerful.”
Top returners are middle blockers Brenna Bruil and Haley Vick and outside hitter Cassandra Mendoza, who was second-team All-NWC last year.
North Idaho College
The Cardinals enter their first season in the Northwest Athletic Conference with six sophomores, including setter Brittany Gay, MB Brooke Bell and MB/RS Zoia Basargin, who missed last season following neck surgery. OH Halle Hess, Kelsie Murray and libero Rachel Leshikar are key newcomers.
“I don’t have a clue what to expect (in the NWAC) but with our returning girls I think we’ll do fine,” coach Kelsey Stanley said. “With a few of the girls we added it’s going to make us that much better.”
Spokane returns a strong core with libero Bianca Sanchez, RS Santana Jose and OH Jessica Schmautz, the Lakeside High product who was East Region MVP in 2015. MB Baylee Gorder, OH Cali Clark and setter Kendall Collins (University High) should make an immediate impact.
“We had a good offseason,” coach Jenni Hull said. “We were able to play with all of our players, we got a lot better and we matched up against some tough competition.”
The Sasquatch figure to bounce back from a rare losing season but the East should be interesting with four-time defending champion Blue Mountain and NIC’s arrival.
“We’re up for the challenge,” Hull said, “but it’s going to be a crazy tough season.”
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