With youth comes uncertainty.
But Western Washington University women’s volleyball coach Diane Flick (16th year) doesn’t look at that as a bad thing.
The Vikings were 21-7 last season, made their fourth NCAA Division II National Tournament appearance in the last five years, and were ranked No. 22 nationally in the final American Volleyball Coaches Association DII coaches poll. They were third in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference with a 14-4 mark. Although six letter winners return, there are just two seniors on the roster.
“Nothing is set in stone, youth does that to you,” said Flick, the winningest coach in school history in both total victories (317) and winning percentage (.789). “That makes me more excited than worried. This is a fun group to be around, a great group to coach. We won’t look experienced on paper, but that’s what the season will teach us.”
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It seems others agree, as WWU was ranked 24th in the national pre-season poll and tied for third in the GNAC Coaches Pre-season Poll.
Four starters return from a year ago, led by senior outside hitter Rachel Roeder (Sammamish/Issaquah), a first-team all-GNAC selection last season, and senior opposite hitter Jennica McPherson (Seattle/Kennedy), a first-team all-conference pick in 2013.
Last year, the hard-hitting Roeder ranked second among the Vikings and seventh in the GNAC in kills per set at 3.18. She has 527 career kills.
“I’m excited about the cannon Rachel has, but she also will do a great job of leading a young team,” Flick said.
McPherson averaged 1.73 kills and 2.55 digs in 2014. She has led WWU in service aces in each of the last three seasons, notching 28 last year, and for her career ranks 15th in school history in aces (94) and 22nd in digs (713).
The other returning starters are sophomore opposite hitter Joellee Buckner (Colville) and sophomore setter Kristina Tribley (Wenatchee).
Buckner, who played in the middle last season, will move to the right side and join McPherson at opposite as the Vikings move to a 6-2 system that will rotate two setters. Buckner averaged 1.29 kills and 0.75 blocks a set in 2014. Redshirt freshman Abby Phelps (Manson/Chelan) could also see time there.
Tribley, who started all but five matches at setter, averaged a GNAC-leading 11.07 assists last year. The other setter will be redshirt freshman Brette Boesel (Brewster).
“They’ve done a good job in the off-season of becoming one brain, which is essential in a 6-2,” said Flick of the setters.
Among the candidates to join Roeder at outside hitter is sophomore Arielle Turner (Leavenworth/Cascade). Turner saw action in 12 matches last year, averaging 1.52 kills and 1.59 digs a set. Sophomore Haleigh Harrison (Sequim) and redshirt freshman Taylor Lyall (Bellingham/Sehome) will also contend for time.
The middle blocker position will see a totally new set of players. Junior Jenna Widman (Nine Mile Falls/Lakeside) was a second-team all-Northwest Athletic Conference pick for CC of Spokane, where she averaged 2.60 kills and 1.12 blocks last year. And Flick says Kayleigh Harper (Oak Harbor) and Michaela Hall (Centralia) showed immeasurable growth as players over the course while redshirting as freshmen in 2014-15.
Returning in the back row is junior Bryce Larson (Mukilteo/Kamiak), who after two years as a defensive specialist becomes the latest in Western’s line of top-notch liberos. She’s already had 23 double-digit dig matches in her career despite playing in only half the rotations.
Redshirt freshman Aubrey Buckner (Colville) and freshman Mae Thungc (Kent/Kentridge) figure to be the new defensive specialists.
Perhaps a reflection of how Flick isn’t bothered by the relative inexperience of the squad is that the Vikings again will open the season with a tough set of non-conference opponents.
WWU meet three teams ranked in the preseason Top 10 in the opening weekend at the University of Tampa Classic, including the host Spartans, who are top-ranked and the defending national champions, and No.9 Wheeling Jesuit. They will also face No.11 BYU-Hawaii in the GNAC/Pac West Crossover at Ellensburg the following weekend.
“Playing tough competition helps us see where we are and how we get to the top level,” Flick said. “It does us no good to schedule weak opponents.”
The Vikings open play in the GNAC, which Flick says “gets better every year,” by hosting Saint Martin’s on Sept. 17. WWU will play all but one of its home matches at Whatcom Community College this season while Sam Carver Gymnasium undergoes renovation.