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WSU volleyball tries to carry winning ways into conference

Three titles in four volleyball tournaments, and a fourth just slipped through Washington State’s fingertips. Receiving votes in the national poll for three consecutive weeks. A 10-2 record, matching rival Washington for the most wins among Pac-12 Conference schools.

The Cougars have had a strong pre-conference run and there are signs they can make some inroads in the rugged Pac-12. WSU opens conference play on the road against No. 4 Washington (10-0) on Wednesday and No. 9 UCLA (9-1) on Friday.

“This preseason schedule has been tougher than any we have played in previous years,” sixth-year coach Jen Greeny said. “I think that will prepare us more for the Pac-12. The experience of having most of our team back also prepares us.”

WSU has piled up some impressive numbers, despite falling to Baylor in five sets last weekend in Waco. The Cougars posted eight 3-0 sweeps, including one over then nationally ranked Kentucky. They rank third nationally in blocks per set (3.38) and fourth in opponent hitting percentage (.110).

Sophomore middle blockers Claire Martin (13th nationally, 1.53 blocks per set) and Taylor Mims (15th, 1.51) have been strong at the net. Mims also hits at a .399 clip. Senior outside hitter Kyra Holt this week could move into fourth on the school’s all-time kills list. Haley MacDonald and Nicole Rigoni are sharing time at setter. Both have 218 assists.

“Blocking was our strength last year and I feel like we’re kind of continuing with that,” Greeny said. “Claire tied the school record with 13 blocks against Baylor. It’s definitely helped going to the 6-2 (alignment utilizing two setters) and having two right-sides instead of a setter blocking.”

The Conference of Champions hasn’t won a national title since UCLA in 2011, the first since the Pac-12 captured five straight crowns from 2001-2005. That has prompted some chatter that the Pac-12 has slipped recently, but the conference did have five national runners-up from 2006-2012.

The Pac-12 remains a force with six ranked teams and two others receiving votes. All 12 programs have winning records.

“It’s still the toughest conference from top to bottom,” Greeny said. “There are no easy teams. An unranked (Pac-12) team would win another conference.”

Zags await WCC opener

Gonzaga, which visits Saint Mary’s on Thursday and Pacific on Saturday, came through pre-conference matches with a 7-3 record, which falls in line with a 9-4 mark in 2015 and 9-2 in 2014. The Zags won their first four matches and were 6-1 before running into No. 1 Nebraska and Creighton, receiving votes, last weekend.

Still, the Zags dug out three five-set wins, including one over host Utah. The WCC is paced by No. 7 San Diego and No. 13 BYU. Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount are receiving votes.

“More games in conference are going to similar to those five-setters, very defense oriented,” coach Diane Nelson said. “We know we have to catch up defensively, pick up more balls and have a more disciplined block.”

GU has shown balance offensively with outsides Emmy Allen (3.67 kills per set) and McKayla Ferris (3.87 kps) and middles Paige Folger (.265 hitting percentage) and freshman Katelyn Oppio (.352).

Sky lights

Idaho (5-7) and Eastern Washington (5-4) bring optimism into their Big Sky Conference openers.

The Vandals, who visit Montana State on Thursday and Montana on Saturday, knocked off host New Mexico to win the UNM Invitational. Three of Idaho’s losses have been to Pac-12 foes.

EWU and North Dakota (8-7) are the only North Division schools with winning records. The Eagles have won three of their last four entering Thursday’s date with Montana. EWU didn’t play last weekend, opting to rest up for the onset of conference.

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