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Experienced Washington State volleyball team primed to make run in NCAA Tournament

Nov. 29, 2018 Updated Thu., Nov. 29, 2018 at 9:08 p.m.

Taylor Mims and Washington State defeated Tennessee on Saturday in Pullman to advance to the regional round of the NCAA Tournament. (WSU Athletics / Courtesy)
Taylor Mims and Washington State defeated Tennessee on Saturday in Pullman to advance to the regional round of the NCAA Tournament. (WSU Athletics / Courtesy)

Washington State volleyball produced arguably its best regular season since 2002.

By doing so, the Cougars are positioned for similar success entering the NCAA Tournament.

WSU earned a No. 16 seed in the 64-team tournament and hosting rights for the first time since 2001, both likely clinched by Saturday’s Apple Cup victory over Washington.

The Cougars (21-9, 12-8 Pac-12) face Big Sky Conference champion Northern Arizona at Bohler Gym today following the Tennessee-Colorado State match. The winners collide Saturday for a spot in the Sweet 16.

“Being at home is probably the most important thing,” WSU coach Jen Greeny said. “Anytime we travel anywhere it takes a long time. To be at home in our normal routine is really big.

“The possibility of not having to play a top-10 seed in the second round is advantageous, but we have three other teams here that are really tough. It is nice not going to Nebraska and playing Nebraska.”

That was the Cougars’ second-round assignment last season when they lost to the eventual national champion Cornhuskers. Two years ago, WSU won its NCAA opener before falling at No. 3 Wisconsin.

The Cougars are doing things under Greeny that they haven’t done since she was an assistant coach from 2000-2002 and during her playing career from 1995-98. Coach Cindy Fredrick guided the Cougars to the Elite Eight in 1996 and 2002.

Greeny has rebuilt the program after being hired in 2011. The 2010 team won six matches and finished 0-18 in conference.

The Cougars have qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year, the first time since 2000-02. The No. 16 seed is their highest since being No. 12 in 2002. Their 20-win season is just the second since 2003, the other coming two years ago. Their fourth-place Pac-12 finish is the highest since the 2002 team shared third.

It’s lofty territory for the Cougars, but more appears to be within reach for an experienced squad that defeated nine ranked teams this season.

Senior Taylor Mims returned from a midseason injury to lead the team in kills in its last four matches. She repeated as an All-Pac-12 selection and was joined by senior outside hitter McKenna Woodford. Junior setter Ashley Brown and junior middle blocker Jocelyn Urias made honorable mention.

“Probably the three straight NCAA Tournaments and just to have so much more consistency in the program,” said Greeny, when asked what ranks highest on WSU’s list of accomplishments. “Of course, that was the goal to get back to the postseason and the rankings and finishing in the top half of conference. That’s definitely not the end game. We definitely want to win a national championship.”

Northern Arizona is riding a 13-game winning streak, including a sweep of Idaho for the Big Sky Tournament championship. The Lumberjacks are 0-2 in two previous NCAA appearances.

Tennessee (25-5) shares the No. 19 spot with WSU in the latest AVCA poll. The Volunteers’ only two SEC losses were to No. 10 Kentucky. This will be the Vols’ 14th NCAA Tournament, their first since 2012.

Mountain West champion Colorado State (23-7) qualified for the NCAA field for the 24th straight season. Tom Hilbert, who coached at Idaho from 1989-96 and led the Vandals to four NCAA Tournaments, is 561-133 in 22 years at CSU.

Eight Pac-12 teams made the NCAA Tournament, the most of any conference. No. 1 overall seed Stanford, No. 11 USC, No. 15 Oregon and WSU are hosting first- and second-round matches.

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