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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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College volleyball: Washington State needs strong finish to return to NCAA Tournament

The Washington State volleyball team is eight games below .500 in the Pac-12 but No. 42 in the NCAA RPI.

And the Cougars, rightfully, still have their sights set on reaching the NCAA Tournament.

How are those three things possible? Welcome to the Pac-12.

The brutally tough conference has seven teams in the Top 25, including defending national champion Stanford at No. 2, and another, Oregon State, receiving votes.

The Pac-12’s depth can bruise win-loss records, but it also opens the door for numerous at-large berths to the 64-team NCAA Tournament. Eight Pac-12 teams made it last year with WSU qualifying for the first time since 2009.

The Cougars (14-12, 3-11 Pac-12) could pull it off again, but they’ll need a strong finish to the regular season. WSU has six matches remaining, beginning with visits from Cal (13-12, 4-10) on Friday and Stanford (21-2, 14-0) on Saturday.

“We’re thinking if we get two wins, possibly three, that we can get in,” WSU coach Jen Greeny said. “Just our strength of schedule, I think it’s eighth in the country, and our RPI is 42. With all that said, we just have to make a push going down the back stretch.”

The Cougars had two conference wins, one over then No. 25 Colorado, by Oct. 6, but the last month has been rough outside of a five-set win over then No. 13 UCLA. They dropped two five-setters at home to the Oregon schools and they’ve been swept in their last four losses.

The slide corresponded with the loss of outside hitter McKenna Woodford to a lower-leg injury. The 6-foot-4 junior was second on the team in kills at the time of her injury.

Minus Woodford, the Cougars shifted Casey Schoenlein from right-side hitter to outside, Cameron Antoine-Dillon from middle to right and 5-8 setter Penny Tusa has taken some swings in the front row.

“Just having McKenna out, we’ve become really predictable,” Greeny said. “We just played four matches in seven days and there wasn’t a whole lot of time to get better and prepared. It’s really great to be back in the gym and have a full week of practice.”

Cardinals take title

North Idaho College secured the top seed and at least a share of the Northwest Athletic Conference East Division title with an impressive sweep over Columbia Basin last week. The reward for NIC, which visits Wenatchee Valley on Wednesday, is a better position in the brackets for next week’s NWAC Tournament in Tacoma.

“It was fun to end (the home schedule) the way we did,” coach Kelsey Stanley said. “We beat CBC the first two games and in the third we had to come back from 24-20 and we scored six straight points.”

Stanley believed she had a strong team, but the Cardinals lost their first two matches at a season-opening tournament in Eugene, prompting a concerned call to husband Keri, an NIC assistant wrestling coach.

The Cardinals soon found their footing and started reeling off wins. They took a break from NWAC play for a tournament in Great Falls, where they went 1-3 against four NAIA Frontier Conference programs.

NIC has won 16 of its last 17. The latest NWAC poll has Chemeketa No. 1, followed by NIC, Columbia Basin and Clark. Walla Walla is No. 6 and Spokane No. 8, giving the East Division four of the top eight.

Pirates honored

Three Whitworth players earned All-Northwest Conference honors.

Sophomore Emiko Kahler made first team for the second straight year. She averaged 3.1 kills per set. Senior Cassandra Mendoza, the team leader at 3.17 kills per set, was a second-team selection for the third consecutive season.

Junior Lauren Budde was honorable mention. She averaged 2.64 kills in NWC matches.

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