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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington State volleyball trying to take next step in sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance

From left, Washington State middle blocker Magda Jehlarova, setter Hannah Pukis and outside hitter Pia Timmer celebrate during Sept. 26 match against Washington.  (Shelly Hanks/WSU Athletics)

Jen Greeny has been a fixture on Washington State University volleyball teams that reached the NCAA Tournament with three trips as a player, three as an assistant under coach Cindy Fredrick and the past six as the head coach.

She’s been part of 12 of the program’s 16 NCAA appearances and the latest likely rates as one of the most satisfying. The Cougars battled through a 0-4 start, adversity and injuries, including outside hitter Pia Timmer missing the past five matches, to earn an at-large berth.

“In this Cougar volleyball program, that’s what we do, that’s what we talk about,” said Greeny, whose team opens against Big Sky Conference champ Northern Colorado at 2:30 Thursday at the Ferrell Center on Baylor’s campus in Waco, Texas. “We breed that kind of environment that we have to be tough and get through adversity.

“We know we’re going against some of the very best in the whole country in this conference. Just really proud of the way we’ve battled and really come together.”

The reward is a school-record sixth consecutive NCAA trip, one of 17 programs nationally to qualify for the past six . Fredrick guided the Cougars to five straight tournaments from 1993-97 and nine over a 12-year span.

Another reward? Recognition from Pac-12 peers. Conference coaches voted Greeny and UCLA coach Michael Sealy co-coach of the year. Greeny won the award in 2016 when she guided the Cougars to their first NCAA Tournament since 2009.

WSU juniors Magda Jehlarova, Hannah Pukis and Timmer earned All-Pac-12 honors. Jehlarova, a three-time selection, was third nationally in blocks per set (1.45). Pukis was second in the conference with 1,130 assists. Timmer paced the team with 348 kills. Pukis and Timmer are two-time, first-team selections.

Katy Ryan, a Lakeland High graduate who had 229 kills, made the all-freshman team.

The Cougars finished 13-7 in the Pac-12 to finish in a three-way tie for fourth. It marks WSU’s fourth consecutive top-five placing and fifth in six seasons in a conference that has won 17 of the sport’s 40 national championships.

That’s the consistency Greeny hoped to build at her alma mater, but it took incremental progress after inheriting a program that finished 0-18 in conference in Andrew Palileo’s final season.

“It was always our goal to get back not only to NCAA Tournament but to be there consistently,” she said. “That’s what we’ve done. Our goal is always to either win the Pac-12 or win the national championship.”

Those remain on the to-do list, but the Cougars have become an established power in the West. They’re looking to take the next step this week with deeper runs in the NCAA Tournament.

“The job is never easy,” Greeny said. “Dick Bennett (former WSU basketball coach) loved the rebuilding process and I think there’s really something special about rebuilding. It gets a little bit harder once you’re more successful to make that next jump into a top-10 team nationally year in and year out.

“We have some little disadvantages of just where we are geographically and we play in a really tough conference. It’s not easier, it’s actually a little harder.”

The possible return of Timmer could make things easier for the Cougars.

“That’s the lingering question,” Greeny said. “She’s made some great strides. She has some testing as far as jump testing so we’ll see how that goes, but we’re sure hoping to get her back in some capacity.”

The WSU/Northern Colorado winner takes on the No. 5 seed Baylor/Texas A&M-Corpus Christi winner.