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Whitworth volleyball opens Division III NCAA Tournament against sixth-ranked Hope College

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 10, 2021

NWC Player of the Year Maddie Lee goes for a kill against Lewis and Clark on Nov. 5 in Spokane.  (Courtesy Whitworth Athletics)
NWC Player of the Year Maddie Lee goes for a kill against Lewis and Clark on Nov. 5 in Spokane. (Courtesy Whitworth Athletics)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Practice ended Monday evening at the Whitworth Fieldhouse, but Maddie Lee wasn’t ready to be done.

She lined up near the net, and worked with two teammates, hitting volleyball after volleyball. After about 10 minutes, Lee drilled what was supposed to be the final ball into the net. It bounced right back to a teammate.

“Just one more,” Lee said, and so her teammates served it up.

Can’t end on a miss, right?

“I just want to put myself in the best position and the best feeling going into this weekend,” said Lee, one of the Pirates’ three seniors. “I just wanted to rep it out with my setters and get on the same page and make sure we’re playing to the best of our abilities.”

Whitworth volleyball hasn’t had a losing season in any of Kati Bodecker’s nine seasons as head coach, but this year has been the Pirates’ best. They finished 16-0 in Northwest Conference play, becoming the first team to go unbeaten in the NWC since 2009.

On Thursday, they open the Division III NCAA Tournament in Wisconsin, where they will play Hope (Michigan) College (23-4). Hope is ranked sixth in this week’s national AVCA D-III coaches poll.

Seven other teams will join Whitworth (21-2) in Eau Claire, one of eight on-campus regional sites in the 64-team tournament. Whitworth is the second team listed among “others receiving votes” in that AVCA poll.

Whitworth last played in the tournament in 2019 and has reached it nine previous times since 2001. With an overall tournament record of 4-9, the Pirates are looking for their first NCAA Tournament match victory since 2010.

“We are talented, and talented because we’re stronger in more positions,” Bodecker said. “Rather than just having one go-to player, I think we have a couple. On good days, hopefully four or five. So in that way, I think this is probably the team that has the most depth since I’ve been coaching.”

The Pirates have always had good outsides, Bodecker said, but this season they also have particularly good middles, and that has made a big difference.

That said, the outside hitter Lee – who was named the NWC’s Player of the Year on Tuesday – has certainly been crucial to their success, Bodecker said.

“She’s amazing,” Bodecker said of Lee. “To have a solid six-rotation player like her, who never comes off the court who is just as effective defensively as she is offensively, is a game-changer.”

Lee was one of three Pirates players named first-team all-conference on Tuesday, along with freshmen Kaity Barr and Cassidy Franklin, both middle backs. Franklin was also chosen as the conference’s freshman of the year.

At Mead High School, Lee was the Greater Spokane League Player of the Year as a junior and again as a senior. From there, she went to Central Washington, but after two years she decided to transfer to Whitworth, where she had originally considered attending out of high school.

“This season has been incredible, honestly,” Lee said. “I have been through a lot of ups and downs in volleyball in my career, especially in college. Coming here to Whitworth last year, and having it be a COVID season with all the strange protocols and everything, was really weird. So finally getting to play a normal season with my best friends and just being so successful, it’s definitely an experience I’ll never forget.”

Bodecker was also named the NWC Coach of the Year this week, the fourth time she has earned the distinction. She has a record of 161-61 at Whitworth, the third-most victories among coaches in program history.

“Kati’s tough love has really set her apart as a coach,” said senior Kaitlyn White, a Central Valley High School graduate. “She’s really good at what she does, and she knows when she needs to give us a little bit of a harder time and she also knows when we need a little bit more support. She’s just good at reading all her players and knowing that each and everybody’s needs are different, and adapting to everybody.”

The Pirates have never won an NCAA regional, though this year – similar to 2019 – the seeding committee did not cluster all of the West Region’s teams in one pod. Traditionally, Bodecker said, the D-III teams in the West have been among the nation’s best, and that has created some loaded pods.

Hope College, of Holland, Michigan, won a national title in 2014. Host Wisconsin-Eau Claire, ranked eighth nationally, is on the other side of the eight-team pod.

To capture the region, a team needs to win three matches in three days.

That’s certainly a challenge, Bodecker said, especially after a long season. But she is relying on excitement, adrenaline, and the training and preparation her team has put in all season long to be successful this weekend.

“They’re very self-motivated,” Bodecker said as she watched Lee’s routine after practice. “They push each other. They’re very supportive. We have a really connected team.”

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