Seawolves, Vikings Top Close Volleyball Preseason Poll
Alaska Anchorage is picked to win the 2017 GNAC title by conference coaches after setting records in 2016 with 34 overall wins and 19 conference victories.
Alaska Anchorage is picked to win the 2017 GNAC title by conference coaches after setting records in 2016 with 34 overall wins and 19 conference victories.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

PORTLAND, Ore. – Five Great Northwest Athletic Conference volleyball teams made the NCAA West Regional Tournament in 2016. Conference coaches believe the 2017 season could be just as potent.

Alaska Anchorage and Western Washington are picked No. 1 and No. 2 in a very close 2017 GNAC Volleyball Preseason Coaches Poll, released on Tuesday. The Seawolves, the defending NCAA Division II national runner-up, received five first place votes and a total of 110 points. The Vikings, who fell to UAA in the West Region championship match, picked up three first place votes and a total of 109 points.

Northwest Nazarene, which won its first ever NCAA Tournament match last season, is picked a close third with the remaining first place votes and a total of 106 points.

The GNAC’s two other regional contenders are picked fourth and fifth with Central Washington earning 89 points and Simon Fraser earning 77 points. Concordia is picked sixth with 67 points followed by Western Oregon (50 pts.), Seattle Pacific (46 pts.), Saint Martin’s (26 pts.), Alaska (25 pts.) and Montana State Billings (21 pts.).

The Seawolves went on an impressive run last year, setting GNAC records with 34 overall wins and 19 conference victories en route to a meeting in the national championship match against Concordia-St. Paul. Alaska Anchorage won with defense, leading the GNAC in opponent hitting percentage (.127) and ranking second in blocks (2.39 per set). The Seawolves’ offense wasn’t bad either as they finished second in the GNAC in hitting percentage (.225) and kills (13.94 per set).

Alaska Anchorage will look to repeat without two key pieces of the puzzle. Setter Morgan Hooe, the team leader for the Seawolves the last two seasons, has graduated along with middle blocker Erin Braun. The leadership of the team will fall to junior outside hitter Leah Swiss, who earned All-America and First Team All-GNAC honors after finishing second in the GNAC with 3.56 kills per set to go along with a .242 hitting percentage, 2.77 digs per set and 58 blocks. Junior outside hitter Chrisalyn Johnson stepped up in her sophomore campaign, finishing the season with 3.09 kills per set and 54 blocks.

The Seawolves also return sophomore Diana Fa’amausili, who was named GNAC and AVCA West Region Freshman of the Year. She finished with 2.75 kills per set and ranked among the conference leaders with 1.05 blocks per set (138 total). Alaska Anchorage enters the season ranked No. 4 in the AVCA Division II Preseason Coaches Poll.

Where Alaska Anchorage thrived on defense, Western Washington excelled on offense. The Vikings finished seventh in Division II in kills per set (14.38), eight in assists per set (13.50) and 14th in hitting percentage (.253). The Vikings were the only team to defeat the Seawolves during the GNAC season. Their other two GNAC losses came in five-set matches to Northwest Nazarene and Simon Fraser, both of whom joined the Vikings at the West Regional. Thanks to the return of 12 players and five starters, including a pair of All-Americans, WWU enters the season ranked No. 12 in the AVCA Preseason Poll.

Junior outside hitter Abby Phelps earned AVCA Honorable Mention All-America honors in 2016, finishing the season with 3.23 kills and 4.56 digs per set while amassing a .246 hitting percentage. Senior outside hitter Arielle Turner was also a First Team All-GNAC choice, registering 2.93 kills per set and a .231 hitting percentage. Junior setter Brette Boesel added 7.79 assists per set and was ranked second in the GNAC with 0.41 aces per set (46 total). Junior opposite Joellee Buckner finished ninth in the GNAC in digs, averaging 4.06 per set.

Northwest Nazarene returns the most experienced team in the GNAC with all six starters and libero back from a squad that won the school’s first-ever NCAA Volleyball Tournament match. The Crusaders finished the season with a .212 hitting percentage, were third in the GNAC with an average of 12.95 assists per set and saw just four matches all season go to five sets.

The Crusaders’ bring back three All-GNAC selections and a pair of All-Americans. Senior middle blocker Madi Farrell earned All-American accolades from both the AVCA and D2CCA. She led the GNAC and was 30th in Division II with a .354 hitting percentage and finished seventh nationally with 1.31 blocks per set. Senior outside hitter Kendra Bodine was an AVCA Honorable Mention All-American, leading the GNAC with an average of 3.88 kills per set. Senior setter Hailey Cook picked up Honorable Mention All-GNAC honors, finishing second in the GNAC with 11.44 assists per set.

Central Washington tied with Northwest Nazarene for fourth place in 2016 and finished the season as the top blocking team in Division II. The Wildcats averaged 2.96 blocks per set while ranking third in Division II with 316.5 total blocks. The blocking numbers bolstered an offense that amassed a .200 hitting percentage and ranked in the GNAC’s top half in assists, digs, kills and opponent hitting percentage.

The Wildcats will be anchored by senior middle blocker Sabrina Wheelhouse, who was named an honorable mention All-American by both the AVCA and D2CCA. Wheelhouse led the GNAC and was second in Division II in blocking, averaging 1.66 per set to go along with 152 kills and a .314 hitting percenrtage. Junior outside hitter Madison Weg earned Honorable Mention All-GNAC honors after averaging 2.35 kills per set. Central Washington also returns junior outside hitter Shelby Mauritson, who averaged 2.29 kills and 2.89 digs per set.

Simon Fraser, picked to finish fifth, posted its best season since joining the GNAC in 2010 as it finished 21-8 overall and third in the league at 14-6. The run resulted in the Clan’s first NCAA Tournament appearance. A defensively strong squad, Simon Fraser finished fifth in Division II with 20.10 digs per set and was second in the GNAC in opponent hitting percentage (.157). On the offensive side of the net, the Clan ranked second in the league in assists (13.14 per set) and third in kills (13.76).

The Clan will have to adjust to life without a trio of all-conference performers from 2016, including two-time GNAC Defensive Player of the Year Alison McKay. Sophomore middle blocker Tessa May earned First Team All-GNAC honors as a freshman after she finished with a .278 hitting percentage and averages of 2.80 kills and 1.22 blocks per set. Senior outside hitter Christine Howlett also returns after averaging 2.31 kills in 2016 with 50 blocks.

While just now entering its first year of full Division II membership, Concordia has finished sixth in each of its first two GNAC seasons with winning records. The Cavaliers finished second in the league with 1.58 aces per set and third with a .223 hitting percentage. Concordia was one of six GNAC teams to average more than two blocks per set, finishing at 2.14 per set.

Two-time First Team All-GNAC opposite Lindsey Dorsey is back for her senior season. She led the GNAC with 0.51 aces per set (52 total) and averaged 3.18 kills per set with a .251 hitting percentage. Senior middle blocker Colby Barnette finished seventh in the league with 1.06 blocks per set and was eighth with a .277 hitting percenrage. Senior Michele Brown finished third in the GNAC with 11.08 assists per set. Both Barnette and Brown earned Honorable Mention All-GNAC honors.

Western Oregon improved in Tommy Gott’s first season as head coach, improving by two wins both in the conference and overall win/loss columns. The Wolves were strongest on the defensive side of the net, ranking third in the GNAC with 19.07 digs per set. Western Oregon returns 12 players for Gott’s second season, led by senior outside hitter Alisha Bettinson. She led WOU with 3.40 kills and 3.23 digs per set. Junior setter Maddie Mehciz averaged 10.47 assists per set and 50 blocks while senior middle blocker Sydney Blankinship finished with 1.73 kills per set and a .271 hitting pertcentage.

Seattle Pacific tied with Western Oregon for seventh last year and will adjust to life under first year head coach Abbie Wright. The Falcons return an experienced squad of six starters that finished third in the GNAC and 10th with 2.37 blocks per set. Junior middle blocker Shaun Crespi earned Honorable Mention All-GNAC honors after she ranked fifth in Division II with 1.42 blocks per set. She also finished with 1.92 kills per set with a .230 hitting percentage. Junior setter Symone Tran and sophomore outside hitter Gabby Oddo also earned honorable mention laurels. Tran passed for an average of 10.24 assists per set while Oddo finished fourth in the GNAC with 3.41 kills per set in an injury-shortened season.

Saint Martin’s is picked to finish ninth after tying for 10th place in Jon Killingbeck’s first year as head coach. The Saints added four wins to its ledger in 2016 after picking up just two victories in 2015. Senior outside hitter Rebecca Mitchell will lead the offense after she averaged 3.10 and 2.81 digs per set. Junior outside hitter Rachel Gondrezick averaged 2.88 kills and 2.18 digs per set while senior setter/right side Nicolette Nesbitt averaged 6.06 assists per set as one of two setters for the Saints.

Alaska, picked to finish 10th, found wins hard to come by in 2016 after the loss of a number of key offensive players. The Nanooks excelled, however, in aces as they finished third in the GNAC with 1.46 per set. Senior middle blocker/right side Riley Podowicz led the way with her 37 aces to go along with an average of 0.67 blocks per set. Senior outside hitter Maddie Davis averaged 2.05 kills per set last year while senior setter Rachel Nichols averaged 9.48 asists per set to go along with 29 blocks.

Montana State Billings finished ninth in the GNAC in 2016, but will have to adjust to the loss of its top two offense players in outside hitters Ashlynn Ward and Stormy Siemion. The Yellowjackets will rely greatly on junior middle blocker Miranda McConnell, who average 1.74 kills per set with 60 blocks in her sophomore campaign. Sophomore outside hitter Taylor Sherman returns from a redshirt season after finishing with 2.99 digs per set as a freshman.

Seattle Pacific opens the 2017 season on Thurs., Aug. 31, with a neutral site match in Hawaii against UC Colorado Springs. All 11 teams will be in competition during Labor Day weekend before the GNAC hosts the second D2 West Regional Volleyball Showcase, Sept. 7-9. Conference play opens on Mon., Sept. 11, when Northwest Nazarene hosts Simon Fraser in a rematch of last year’s NCAA West Regional quarterfinals match.

Rank Team (1st Place Votes) 2016 Record GNAC Record (Finish) Pts.
1. Alaska Anchorage (5) 34-3 19-1 (1st) 110
2. Western Washington (3) 23-8 17-3 (2nd) 109
3. Northwest Nazarene (3) 22-7 13-7 (tie 4th) 106
4. Central Washington 17-12 13-7 (tie 4th) 89
5. Simon Fraser 21-8 14-6 (3rd) 77
6. Concordia 15-13 11-9 (6th) 67
7. Western Oregon 10-17 7-13 (tie 7th) 50
8. Seattle Pacific 11-17 7-13 (tie 7th) 46
9. Saint Martin's 6-18 2-18 (tie 10th) 26
10. Alaska 3-24 2-18 (tie 10th) 25
11. Montana State Billings 7-23 5-15 (9th) 21
Points awarded on 11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis.