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Unbeaten Community Colleges of Spokane enjoys journey on, off volleyball court

Community Colleges of Spokane volleyball coach Jenni Hull walked into Tuesday’s practice and said softly in tone but loudly in spirit: “It’s a great day to be a Sasquatch.”

There have been a ton of great days this season for the Sasquatch, who wrapped up a spotless 35-0 regular season last week and next tries to complete their magical run at the Northwest Athletic Conference Championship in Tacoma.

But don’t mistake unbeaten with untested. Hull suffered a broken jaw nearly a month ago and just had her wires removed earlier Tuesday. She has communicated with her team through barely audible whispers, by writing on a white board and circling words on a sheet of paper.

“This team has been unbelievable,” said Hull, who fainted at her home when she became disoriented after taking heart medication. “They use everything to their advantage and every time something happens they step it up a notch. I could barely say anything at practices, but when I did, they all start screaming it so everyone else could hear it.”

Assistant coach Katlyn Mataya and former Sasquatch coach Irene Matlock guided the team to wins when Hull couldn’t make a road trip.

“It was rough,” said sophomore middle blocker Joelle Mahowald, who has signed with Montana State University-Billings. “Irene stepped in and was super helpful, but it’s not the same when you don’t have your head coach.”

On the court, Spokane has endured four five-set matches and rallied past Bellevue in a deciding third set. Two matches against Blue Mountain went the distance. At Walla Walla earlier this month, the Sasquatch trailed 13-11 in the fifth before rattling off four straight points to improve to 34-0.

Players sensed early on that the team could have a special year. As the season went on, they made a postmatch habit of returning to the locker room and updating their record on one of the walls.

Opponents were highly motivated to try to hand the Sasquatch their first loss, but the squad has maintained its poise and focus.

“The coaches have told us we have a huge target on our backs,” said setter Lindsey Russell, one of the three Russell triplets on the team. “At the end of games when we win, 23-0 or whatever, it’s, ‘Let’s work at the next practice to be 24-0.’ ”

The team has put in the time and effort but hasn’t forgotten to enjoy the process.

They joke around at practice and several players break up the monotony with dance moves. After beating Wenatchee Valley in the regular-season finale, the team celebrated with dinner, new shirts and ring pops.

“We all bring something unique,” Mahowald said. “We’re always laughing and having a good time and everyone contributes to that.”

Spokane’s reward for a perfect regular season is modest – a No. 1 seed and a date with fourth-seeded Clark in Thursday’s opener at the Tacoma Convention Center. The Sasquatch won the rugged East Division – four teams are ranked in the top eight – but they’ll likely encounter the best teams from the other three divisions.

“It’s like starting over,” Russell said. “We’ve shown we’re clearly a good team. We just need to keep a good mind set.”

Hull purposely makes practices tough to keep the team levelheaded.

“We put them in losing drills, where there’s no way they’re going to win,” she said. “They feel the defeat of it. In the NWAC Tournament, you have to be able to come back.”

Another not-so-gentle reminder of what awaits at the four-day tournament is one of the team’s adages: “Till day 4 is done, fight till we’ve won.”

Chemeketa was the last unbeaten NWAC team, posting a 50-0 mark in 2008. Hull can’t recall any other unbeatens from her Sasquatch playing days (All-American in 1996) and coaching tenure that began in 2005.

“It’s been so fun,” Hull said. “This is the reason you spend all the time setting the scene for your program so you can have this unbelievable platform of 35-0, are you kidding me? These athletes are gems to work with.”

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