PULLMAN – The realization hit Lana Radakovic immediately
Her Washington State volleyball team had just polished off a four-set victory over eighth-ranked BYU, a comeback win on the road over a perennial powerhouse, and middle blocker Radakovic was basking in the win. On Sept. 8, the Cougars had just won their seventh straight match, and as they rose in the national rankings, Radakovic was beginning to understand what was unfolding within the team.
“To be in control of that type of match against the No. 8-ranked team,” Radakovic said, “I was like, ‘ Well, if they were No. 8, we could be up there.”
Washington State isn’t just “up there.” The Cougars backed up their No. 7 national ranking with a three-set win against rival Washington on Thursday. On Sept. 13, they went on the road and toppled No. 18 Baylor. Last Friday, they dethroned No. 6 Texas, the defending national champions. In one week, WSU knocked off three ranked teams, all on the road.
“To go into enemy territory and get those wins,” WSU football coach Jake Dickert said, “what a confidence-booster for their program.”
As these Cougars look around campus, though, they see their friends in other sports producing similarly promising seasons. Washington State’s football team, 3-0 on the season, is ranked No. 21. The Cougars’ women’s soccer team, 7-1 on the year, will carry a No. 24 ranking into their Friday night showdown with No. 2 Stanford.
That makes Washington State one of three teams in the country ranked in football, soccer and volleyball. In any other year, that would register as remarkable. This year, it’s a proclamation.
“Quite honestly,” WSU soccer coach Todd Shulenberger said, “we all have a point to make right now, given everything that’s going on.”
Washington State is one of two teams left in the Pac-12, and barring a last-minute invitation to another power conference, the Cougars have two options regarding their future: Rebuild the Pac-12 with teams from other conferences, or join the Mountain West.
At the moment, the Cougars are angling toward the former, earlier this month winning a lawsuit that canceled a board meeting with all Pac-12 schools, including the ones on their way out. Next, they’ll look to gain a better understanding of what kinds of assets the conference has – to whom their rights belong.
All those details will surface in time. In Pullman, however, these teams can only concern themselves with winning games. They might not be trying to, but in the process, the Cougars may be building a case for themselves: We belong in a power conference.
They are not being coy about it. On Sept. 9, moments after WSU’s football team upset, Dickert said in a TV interview: “We belong in the Power Five.”
Shulenberger made no bones about proving a point. On Thursday afternoon, WSU volleyball coach Jen Greeny reinforced what her team has just accomplished, taking down three Big 12 teams on the road.
“I think anybody would want us in their conference,” Greeny said. “Especially the fans that we have, the support overall. We’re getting a lot of national attention, too.”
Washington State’s coaches believe this is what a power conference school looks like. Their resumes back up their arguments.
Cameron Ward is one of four quarterbacks nationwide with at least nine touchdown passes and zero interceptions. He also has the most pass attempts without an interception in the country, per Pro Football Focus. In his team’s win over Wisconsin, he tossed a pair of key touchdown passes.
Ward and the Cougars have earned an AP Top 25 ranking for the first time in four years. Ahead of their home matchup with No. 14 Oregon State Saturday night, they look the part. They’ve cruised to wins over Colorado State and Northern Colorado. In taking down Wisconsin, ranked No. 19 at the time, they prevailed in the program’s first home game against a Power Five nonconference foe in a quarter century.
Washington State’s soccer team has generated something similar, with only a loss to Saint Mary’s. The Cougars own two wins over Power Five teams – a road victory over Texas A&M on Aug. 20 and a home win over Kansas on Sept. 10. They’ve handled business otherwise, topping San Diego State and Seattle in the past three weeks.
“We like to call this a normal fall in Pullman,” WSU Athletic Director Pat Chun said. “So when you talk about what this adds, I think it just reinforces this is how we’ve operated. This is the type of athletic program that we’ve built.”
“This is my eighth fall as WSU president, and I think we’ve got more excitement from our fan base than I’ve seen in a good number of years,” Washington State’s Kirk Schulz said.
Peel back the layer of excitement, though, and you find what Schulz called “angst” and “trepidation.” As the Cougars take down ranked opponents , they’re doing so against the backdrop of conference realignment, the system that has left them behind. That has worried WSU players, coaches and brass who still don’t know where they will land. It’s also fired them up in a way few things can.
During an interview Wednesday, Ward said, “We know from the outside sources that we’re not a Power Five team, so we’ve got something to go prove day in and day out.”
On Thursday afternoon, during a joint media call with the president and athletic director from Oregon State, the other Pac-12 team without a conference home, Chun was discussing WSU’s weekend slate of home games.
“I think volleyball is the only one where the opponent isn’t ranked, and that is University of Washington,” Chun said.
On this topic, Chun has not been shy. On the morning of Aug. 4, Washington State has stated publicly that Pac-12 presidents had an agreement in place to accept a media-rights deal from Apple, which would have kept the conference intact. At the eleventh hour, Washington and Oregon pulled out and accepted invitations to the Big Ten, which torpedoed progress and led more schools to jump ship, dismantling the conference as we know it.
Five days later, on a Zoom news conference, a reporter asked Chun about his conversation with Jen Cohen, the former UW athletic director who delivered the news that her school was pulling out.
Chun used one word to describe that chat: “Brief.”
Ever since, Washington State’s teams have played like clubs with no intention of getting left behind again.
The Cougars would tell you they shouldn’t have been left behind in the first place, and as these teams win games and climb the rankings, they might be onto something.