The youth movement is on for the four area Division I volleyball programs, particularly on the Palouse.
Washington State, fresh from its first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2002, has seven freshmen and four redshirt freshmen. Idaho, which earned a share of the Big Sky title last year, has seven freshmen and five sophomores on its roster.
“We are babies,” Cougars coach Jen Greeny said. “There’s been a lot of teaching going on, I’m not sure how much coaching has happened.”
“It’s been awhile (since UI was this young), but you go through those cycles,” Vandals coach Debbie Buchanan said.
Fifteen of Eastern Washington’s 18 players were recruited by coach Leslie Flores-Cloud. She’s been on the job roughly 14 months.
“We’re young,” Flores-Cloud said, “but we’re talented young.”
Gonzaga, which lost six seniors, opens Friday against Connecticut inside the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.
“Even the coach at (tournament host) Air Force said he only invited teams he knew were going to be rebuilding,” Bulldogs coach Diane Nelson said.
Here’s a look at area programs with their 2019 records.
WSU (23-10, 12-8 Pac-12)
The Cougars have made impressive strides in Greeny’s first eight years. They’ve been to three straight NCAA Tournaments. They’re ranked No. 22 in the preseason poll.
They’ll have a new look after the graduation of Taylor Mims and McKenna Woodford. The tandem combined for 847 kills last season. WSU returns setter Ashley Brown, middle blocker Jocelyn Urias, libero Alexis Dirige and outside hitter Penny Tusa. Freshmen Magda Jehlarova, Mykayla Myers, Pia Timmer, Reagan Cooper and Kalyah Williams are in the mix for playing time.
“I would say it’s definitely rebuilding but with a more solid core than what we’ve had in other rebuilding situations,” said Greeny, whose team lost to eventual national champion Stanford in the Sweet 16. “We worked really hard to get the program back on the national map. It’s important not only to us but the players and especially the seniors that helped us get to that level. To keep it there is sometimes harder than it is to get there.”
Idaho (23-10, 15-3 Big Sky)
Idaho lost its top four kill leaders from last year’s team. Middle blocker Nikki Ball’s 119 kills top the returners. Delaney Hopen is a proven contributor. Senior Paige Rupiper, junior Avery Housley and sophomore Kennedy Warren could assume bigger roles.
“Our goal is to get better every day and they want to win,” Buchanan said. “They think they can surprise a lot of people and they work their tails off.”
Gonzaga (10-18, 8-10 WCC)
Newcomers will be counted on to complement returning contributors Sarah Penner, Jenna Kuehn, Payton Mack, Katelyn Oppio and Chapin Gray. Penner was a preseason All-WCC selection. Freshmen Tia Andaya, Dani Batenhorst and Alisa Kim are bidding for prominent roles.
“We have some real businesslike, competitive freshmen,” said Nelson, whose team was picked eighth in the WCC preseason poll. “Obviously, they lack experience, but they don’t lack just getting in there and not being afraid. They’re fearless.”
EWU (8-22, 0-18 Big Sky)
The Eagles’ goal is to make the Big Sky Tournament (top eight) after going winless in conference last season.
“The competitiveness we saw last year with less talent, it’ll be really interesting to see what we can do with some of the talent we’re bringing in,” Flores-Cloud said.
Catelyn Linke, MaKenna Davis, Kamille Langford, ShaRae Nui and Puaoo Sao lead the returners. Other options include freshmen Nicoletta Capizzi, Ehu Keala and Renata Lopez Morales, UC Riverside transfer Ashlyn Blotzer, and transfers Hailee Etter (Shadle Park High, North Idaho College) and Alisha Straw (Freeman, Community Colleges of Spokane).
CCS (40-0, 16-0 NWAC East)
The Sasquatch last year became the first unbeaten NWAC team since Chemeketa in 2008. They don’t appear to be slowing down. They went 6-0 in an NWAC preseason friendly tournament and spent the spring more than holding their own against four-year schools.
“Our big motto was to get better and when you were 40-0 that sort of sounds crazy, but they’re playing really well,” coach Jenni Hull said. “We got so much better in the spring.”
Key returners include Brooklyn Rainer, Alleana Gallagher (Lakeside-Nine Mile Falls) and the Russell triplets, Lindsey, McKenna and Allison, from Mead High.
NIC (26-13, 11-5 NWAC East)
The Cardinals return just four sophomores – Chloe Knudson (Lake City), Kynzey Mitzel, Hannah McPhetridge and Monique Johnson – but the freshman class is strong with Taylor Foster, Journey Tupea and Hokulea Vargas (Mt. Spokane).
“It’ll be a tough conference,” said coach Kelsey Stanley, whose team went 6-0 in friendlies recently against NWAC competition. “Spokane is the team to beat.”
Whitworth (19-8, 13-3 NWC)
The Pirates are motivated after a loss on the final weekend cost them the 2018 Northwest Conference title and spot in the NCAA Division III Tournament.
“I don’t think there’s a clear-cut dominant team,” said coach Kati Bodecker, whose squad was picked third in the preseason poll.
Outside hitter Emiko Kahler has earned All-NWC recognition three straight years. Senior middles Madison Douglas and Iris Tiknohov started last season.
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