Coach Diane Flick and her Western Washington University volleyball team hear the hype surrounding the upcoming season. They know they're the country's No. 17-ranked team and the preseason favorite to repeat as Great Northwest Athletic Conference champions.
All the pieces needed to earn a national tournament appearance seem to be in place. Western returns eight letter winners and five of its seven starters.
The key for Flick's group is simple: Forget about expectation and exercise patience.
"We always talk about the things you can control and can't," Flick said. "Any of those rankings have nothing to do with anything we do, per se, because there are people across the country that have never seen us play that rank us something."
Having a target on their back is nothing new for Western volleyball. In fact, it's become borderline customary during Flick's 12-year tenure. The Vikings have reached the national tournament seven times in that span, reaching the national title game in 2007. WWU missed volleyball's Big Dance in '08 and '09 before cracking the field of 64 in both 2010 and '12. Coming off a 24-4 record, GNAC title and regional semifinal berth, the Vikings seem primed to achieve back-to-back national tournaments for the first time since falling one game shy of winning a national title.
However, Flick would say not so fast.
It's a new year and a new team. And even though the bulk of the 2012 roster returns, Flick is ensuring her club doesn't get too far ahead of itself.
"I think the most important thing is for us to stay really patient," Flick said, "knowing we have high expectations, knowing that other people have high expectations for us. We can get impatient fast if something is not clicking right away. We just need to realize it will come. Even though we've been together for so long, we're still massaging some of the transition areas, so patience will probably be one of our biggest keys."
Gaining experience will not. Sure, Western returns just one senior in middle blocker Emily Boerger, but the Vikings tout a strong group of juniors and sophomores who already have starting or spot experience.
Second-team All-American junior libero Samantha Hutchinson headlines the group. She's as talented of a defender as there is in Division II and falls into a long line of standout Viking defensive specialists.
"With Sam in the back we have very good first-ball contact," Flick said. "She's not only good at serve-receive, she is good at knowing the game. She is able to provide information for everybody on the court. She's almost like a second coach on the court. It's going to be her third year, started as a freshman. We really put a premium on defense. It's not everybody's priority, but it is for us."
Not everybody has two towering middle blockers such as Boerger and All-Region and All-GNAC junior Kayla Erickson, either.
Both take pressure off Western's outside hitters and give opposing hitters plenty of trouble. Both are also WWU's team captains, though the club takes leadership qualities from a number of players, Flick said.
Returning starter and sophomore opposite Jennica McPherson, who Flick noted has put together a strong offseason, gives Western another wrinkle within its attack, and 6-foot-1 junior Kelsey Moore, who ranked third on the team in kills during 2012, returns to her outside position.
The big question mark surrounding the team, besides the graduation of setter Laurie Yearout and entrance of well-groomed junior Taylor Dillard in her place, is how in the world does WWU overcome the loss of first-team All-American outside hitter Marlayna Geary, who was a four-year staple of Western's attack.
Flick made it clear; nobody is going to fill Geary's shoes. She wants every player to carve out their own identities. Flick did, though, come up with a crafty equation she believes, if followed, will make up for the production lost.
"We've always said we replace her five kills a game by somebody getting three, and then we take 0.5 and spread it out amongst the people who've had experience, and they should, inevitably, if they're getting better, be able to make up 0.5 (kills)."
Moore, who averaged 1.99 kills per set last year, should be able to improve on that number, and Flick said junior Emily Cotter, sophomore Rachel Roeder and redshirt freshman Raney Lepper each are battling to replace Geary on the outside.
Flick's players select a motto or mantra to take into the season every year, and she believes this years' 'breathe, believe, battle' phrase matches her group particularly well.
"When I think about it," she said, "it does fit them, just because those are the things we have to do: Stay patient, breathe, believe in what we're doing and take confidence in it and just fight like mad."
The Vikings open their season against Cal State East Bay during the Western Oregon Invitational at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 5, in Monmouth, Ore.
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862.
2013 WWU VOLLEYBALL SCHEDULE
Date Opponent Time
Western Oregon Invitational
Aug. 5 Cal State East Bay (Monmouth, Ore) 12:30 p.m.
Aug. 5 Holy Names (Monmouth, Ore.) 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 6 Minnesota State-Mankato (Monmouth, Ore.) 12:30 p.m.
Aug. 7 Metro State (Monmouth, Ore.) 12:30 p.m.
Aug. 13 Cal State Stanislaus (Rohnert Park, Calif.) 11:15 a.m.
Aug. 13 Chico State (Rohnert Park, Calif.) 3:45 p.m.
Aug. 14 San Francisco State (Rohnert Park, Calif.) 9 a.m.
Aug. 14 Sonoma State (Rohnert Park, Calif.) 1:30 p.m.
Aug. 26 at Montana State-Billings* 7 p.m.
Aug. 28 at Seattle Pacific* 5 p.m.
Oct. 3 Northwest Nazarene* 7 p.m.
Oct. 5 Central Washington* 7 p.m.
Oct. 10 at Saint Martin's* 7 p.m.
Oct. 12 at Western Oregon* 7 p.m.
Oct. 17 Alaska Fairbanks* 7 p.m.
Oct. 19 Alaska Anchorage* 7 p.m.
Oct. 24 Seattle Pacific* 7 p.m.
Oct. 26 Montana State-Billings* 7 p.m.
Oct. 31 at Central Washington* 7 p.m.
Nov. 2 at Northwest Nazarene* 6 p.m.
Nov. 7 Western Oregon* 7 p.m.
Nov. 9 Saint Martin's* 7 p.m.
Nov. 14 at Alaska Anchorage* 8 p.m.
Nov. 16 at Alaska Fairbanks* 8 p.m.
Nov. 21 at Simon Fraser* 7 p.m.
Nov. 23 Simon Fraser* 7 p.m.
2013 WWU VOLLEYBALL ROSTER
No. Player Pos. Year Hometown
10 Emily Boerger MB Sr. Marysville
14 Joelee Buckner Opp. Fr. Colville
18 Sarah Caylor MB RS Fr. Tacoma
11 Emily Cotter OH Jr. University Place
12 Taylor Dillard S Jr. Milton
2 Kayla Erickson MB Jr. Gig Harbor
6 Kelsey Fausko MB/Opp. RS Fr. Auburn
13 Haleigh Harrison OH Fr. Sequim
3 Samantha Hutchinson DS/L Jr. University Place
22 Bryce Larson DS/L RS Fr. Mukilteo
5 Raney Lepper OH RS Fr. Deming
9 Jennica McPherson Opp. So. Seattle
8 Kelsey Moore OH Jr. Bellevue
4 Rachel Roeder OH So. Sammamish
1 Kristina Tribley S Fr. Wenatchee
7 Arielle Turner OH Fr. Leavenworth
Reach ANDREW LANG at firstname.lastname@example.org or call ext. 862.