Heading into the month of November, a degree of uncertainty lingered inside of Carver Gym on the campus of Western Washington University. Diane Flick's volleyball team was ranked in the top-10 in the NCAA and had won two straight matches to close October, but it was coming off of a pair of tough home losses earlier in the month that put into question WWU's chances at a second-straight Great Northwest Athletic Conference crown.
When first-place Alaska Anchorage arrived in Bellingham on Oct. 19, it represented more than just a worthy opponent for the Vikings. Further, UAA carried the mark of being the last team to beat WWU on its home court, dating back to 2011. As fate would have it, the Seawolves pulled off a dramatic five-set victory over the Vikings to remain in first place and stun the home team.
A hangover lingered for the next week, as WWU dropped its next match to Seattle Pacific, another home defeat just five days later.
"The losses really caused me to do some reflection on how it affected my team," Flick commented about losing two straight matches. "After that, we were able to focus on more important things than what we were doing before, and it ended up being a great learning lesson."
Despite the hiccup, the Vikings recovered with a pair of victories, setting themselves up for a run at first place entering the final month of the season.
WWU cruised through its November slate with new found energy, winning all seven matches handily. The Vikings swept opponents in six matches, and the lone blemish during the month came in a rematch against UAA in Anchorage. With the bitter taste of defeat still lingering, WWU dropped the first set to the Seawolves, before winning the next three sets to avenge the loss earlier in the season.
The 25-22 mishap in the first set against UAA proved to be the only set all month that WWU would lose, as it wrapped up its second-straight GNAC title with back-to-back 3-0 victories over Simon Fraser on the final weekend of regular season play.
"I was really proud of our team and they were on point for every moment of every match that we played in," Flick said regarding her team's focus during the month. "The players were able to take out external pressures and expectations to focus on each play, and that resulted in a sustained level of success."
Flick and UAA head coach Chris Green were named GNAC co-Coach of the Year, while the Vikings placed six total players on the 2013 All-GNAC teams. Middle blocker Kayla Erickson and libero Samantha Hutchinson were named GNAC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, respectively.
"The greatest thing about Sam and Kayla is they would never take individual credit for their awards," Flick commented about her core of juniors. "They are two people who are extremely hard workers in their craft, who never waste an opportunity and who try to get better every day."
Hutchinson continued her excellence in the digs department, averaging 7.05 per set in the Vikings' seven November victories. Erickson led the team with 1.41 blocks per set, and fellow All-GNAC selection Emily Boerger was right behind with an average of one block per set.
"Our older players have gained a lot of experience and have truly started to figure out what does and doesn't work for them," Flick commented regarding the leadership on her team. "It is really valuable to have players like that heading into the postseason."
The Vikings received the fifth overall seed in the West Region entering the Division II playoffs, and will face No. 4 seed Sonoma State on Thursday at noon on the campus of host Cal State San Bernardino.
"Sonoma State is a good team and they will definitely bring out the best in you," Flick commented regarding a team the Vikings lost to in the preseason. "We have our hands full, but we are looking forward to playing at a maximum level and it should be a good battle on Thursday."
BRAGG NAMED GNAC PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Western Washington University center Austin Bragg has been named the Red Lion/Great Northwest Athletic Conference men's basketball Player of the Week for Nov. 24-30.
Bragg, a 6-foot-9 senior from Longview,had 20 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots in leading the Vikings to a 72-69 victory over nationally No.1-ranked Metro State.
Bragg scored a layup with 11.8 seconds remaining to give WWU a four-point lead as the Vikings ran their school and GNAC-record home win streak to 31 games.
Bragg, a team co-captain and a pre-season GNAC all-star, is averaging 16.0 points per game, 9.5 rebounds and 4.0 blocks for WWU, which is unbeaten in four games.
The POW honor is the second for Bragg, who started every game and averaged 9.1 points and 7.3 rebounds on last year's team that reached the national semifinals. He also played two seasons at Clark CC, earning NWAACC Western Region all-star and all-defensive honors as a junior.
The Vikings, the two-time defending regular-season conference champions, open GNAC play this week with home games against Western Oregon at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, and Saint Martin's at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7.
WWU NAMED GNAC TEAM OF THE WEEK
A home winning streak north of 30 games is impressive. To grab win No. 31 over the top-ranked team in the land is a whole different story; one written by Western Washington's men's basketball team on Saturday evening in Bellingham.
Behind a quartet of double-digit scorers including a game-high 20 points from Great Northwest Athletic Conference Player of the Week Austin Bragg, the No. 7 Vikings downed No. 1 Metro State 72-69, earning WWU GNAC Team of the Week honors.
WWU gained the lead over Metro State for good just before halftime, protecting its advantage through the entire second period to hold on for the victory. Bragg's 13 rebounds combined with his 20 points gave him a double-double, and highlighted the big victory. Bragg also contributed a game-high five blocks for the Vikings.
Also scoring in double-digits for WWU were Anye Turner, Robert Harris, and Richard Woodworth, who each contributed 11 points. A shooting percentage of 47.6 aided WWU, as Metro State managed a mark of just 40.3 percent from the field. The game marked the first ever meeting between the two schools.
After appearing in the Division II Final Four a season ago, WWU had big shoes to fill entering the 2013-14 season. The Vikings were ranked No. 10 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches preseason poll, but it was the second-ranked Seattle Pacific Falcons who stole the early-season headlines.
Since the first week, WWU has begun a perfect 4-0 while SPU has slipped down the rankings after a 7-3 start. The two teams don't meet until January, when the Falcons visit WWU in Bellingham. With SPU favored to win the GNAC and WWU picked third in the conference's preseason coaches' poll, the rivalry unfolding promises to yield thrilling matchups this season.
GNAC play kicks off this weekend, with the Vikings hosting Western Oregon on Thursday and Saint Martin's on Saturday. WWU looks to kick off its conference slate with a bang, and extend its school and GNAC-record home winning streak, which stands at 31. WOU is the last team to beat WWU in Bellingham, with an 83-73 triumph over the Vikings on Jan. 7, 2012.