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Sunday, November 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Sports

WSU volleyball: Plenty of feel-good to go around for 10th-ranked Cougars

Two mesmerizing weeks, years in the making.

Washington State volleyball has emerged on the national scene with three top 10 wins in 12 days, a No. 10 ranking and an impressive list of firsts.

First national ranking since 2009. First win over rival Washington in Seattle since 2001. First win over Stanford since 2002. First win over UCLA since 2002. First win over the Bruins in Los Angeles since 1997. First 4-0 conference start since 1997, when head coach Jen (Stinson) Greeny and assistant coach Shannon (Wyckoff) Hunt were in WSU’s starting lineup.

First time outside hitter Kyra Holt has been called down in front of her human development class by her professor.

“He congratulated me and the whole team,” Holt said. “One of the best feelings ever.”

There’s plenty of feel-good to go around, especially for WSU’s four seniors. Holt, Haley MacDonald, Tani Stephens and Hailey Bethune were the foundation of a six-player 2013 recruiting class ranked 14th nationally that has helped turned the program in the right direction.

“Definitely a very talented group coming in but it always takes time,” Greeny said. “A lot of them got to play right away and had good experience but in a conference like this it certainly doesn’t happen overnight. You still have to train and get other pieces around them, and we’ve done that.”

That was just part of the rebuilding process.

“Our mindset needed to change and the culture needed to be different,” Greeny said. “And that takes a while, too.”

WSU had an occasional breakthrough in the rugged Pac-12 but couldn’t sustain the success it achieved in non-conference matches. The Cougars went 11-49 in conference from 2013-15, including 1-19 two years ago and an 0-4 conference mark in five-set matches last season.

“Getting recruited to WSU we knew we wanted to be the change to the program and in a developing program you’re going to have hard times,” said MacDonald, a four-year starter who shares setting duties with Nicole Rigoni. “To see it come together now is really, really cool.”

“We (four seniors) have talked about it, just finally seeing the hard work pay off and the results from that.”

The Cougars entered conference play 10-2 and receiving votes in the poll. Then they took down No. 4 Washington. Two days later, they completed the road trip by knocking off No. 9 UCLA in five sets.

WSU won another five-setter over No. 9 Stanford last week in front of 2,522, the largest Bohler Gym crowd in 14 years, and swept Cal on Sunday.

“The biggest thing is we’re handling tight situations better than previous years,” MacDonald said. “When we’re in those tight sets, we want to play with more confidence and aggression instead of being tentative.”

It’s been rewarding for sixth-year coach Greeny, who has insisted for years that the program was making headway, even if the win-loss record didn’t necessarily offer affirmation. The Cougars were regular NCAA tournament participants in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Greeny played on the 1996 Elite Eight team and she assisted under Cindy Fredrick on the 2002 Elite Eight squad.

“That has definitely been mentioned with Jen and Shannon,” Holt said. “We watched some film of her (Greeny) playing. They were pretty good.”

“It was actually mentioned after the Stanford game,” MacDonald added, “that when Shannon and Jen played the atmosphere was like that nearly every single match. They said that’s why teams hated playing in Bohler.”

WSU’s challenge is building on its fast Pac-12 start throughout a grueling 20-game conference schedule. Seven Pac-12 teams are ranked and another is receiving votes. The Cougars visit Oregon State on Friday before a showdown with No. 20 Oregon on Sunday. The Ducks (11-2, 4-0) have won 11 straight and join WSU on top of the standings.

“It’s been quite the two weeks but there’s always another match,” Greeny said. “There hasn’t been a whole lot of time to really enjoy anything.

“We need to keep doing the same things we’ve been doing, focusing on attitude and effort. We did not play well at all (against Cal) and still swept. To know there’s more in there … this isn’t smoke and mirrors and getting these wins with everybody playing out of their minds.

“That’s the exciting part.”

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