Washington Rivals Picked To Battle For Volleyball Title
Alison Davenport (left) is one of three returning starters from WWU's national runner-up team in 2018. Makala Swart is one of three CWU returns who earned Honorable Mention All-America honors.
Alison Davenport (left) is one of three returning starters from WWU's national runner-up team in 2018. Makala Swart is one of three CWU returns who earned Honorable Mention All-America honors.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

PORTLAND, Ore. – One program was points away from a national title. The second broke a seven-year playoff victory drought before bowing out to the No. 1 team in the country.

Conference coaches think the two rivals, Western Washington and Central Washington, will duke it out for the top spot as the two teams tied for first in the 2019 Great Northwest Athletic Conference Volleyball Preseason Coaches Poll.

The Vikings and Wildcats each picked up a total of 114 points to tie at No. 1. Western Washington received seven of 11 first-place votes while Central Washington took the remaining four.

The top-six in the preseason poll mirrors the order of finish in 2018. Alaska Anchorage is picked third with 93 points while Simon Fraser is a close fourth at 90 points. Alaska, the GNAC’s most improved team last year, is picked fifth with 75 points while Seattle Pacific is predicted sixth with 63 points.

Rounding out the poll is Northwest Nazarene at No. 7 (53 pts.) followed by Concordia (50 pts.), Montana State Billings (36 pts.), Western Oregon (26 pts.) and Saint Martin’s (12 pts.).

After losing the first three matches of the season, all to top-25 teams, Western Washington did not lose again until the national championship match and a gritty five-set defeat to Tampa. The Vikings became the first GNAC team to win 20 matches in conference play and just the fifth squad to march through undefeated. Western Washington led the GNAC and ranked fifth in Division II with 2.65 blocks per set, was 14th nationally with 14.24 kills per set and 15th with a .254 hitting percentage. The Vikings open the season ranked No. 3 in the AVCA Preseason Division II Coaches Poll.

The Vikings will be hurt by the loss of three All-Americans, including GNAC Player of the Year and First Team All-American Abby Phelps, but return a solid and experienced lineup. Senior middle blocker Kayleigh Harper earned Second Team All-American honors after finishing third in Division II with a .410 hitting percentage. Her .376 hitting percentage in conference matches was a GNAC season record. Harper also finished eighth nationally with 1.36 blocks per set.

Junior outside hitter Alison Davenport was one of five Western Washington players with 200 or more kills, averaging 1.68 kills per set to go along with 30 aces, 2.38 digs per set and 82 blocks. Senior Mae Thungc provided stout defense last year and averaged 3.65 digs per set with 22 aces. Sophomore outside hitter Gabby Gunterman was key during the second half of the season and finished with 2.18 kills per set and 48 blocks.

Central Washington posted its best season in over a decade with a 23-6 overall record and 16-4 conference mark. The Wildcats earned selection to the NCAA West Regional for the seventh consecutive season but, unlike the first six, succeeded in finding the win column with a five-set victory over Cal State LA in the opening round. Central was as much the offensive power as its western rival, leading the GNAC and ranking 10th in Division II with 14.43 kills per set. The Wildcats were also eighth nationally with 2.53 blocks per set and 10th with 13.55 assists per set.

The Wildcats will be formidable with four returning starters, including three AVCA Honorable Mention All-Americans. Junior outside hitter Makala Swart earned All-GNAC and All-West Region honors after averaging 3.62 kills per set with a .243 hitting percentage and 2.99 digs per set. Senior libero Kyla Morgan earned All-American laurels to go with GNAC Defensive Player of the Year honors after ranking 19th in Division II with 5.84 digs per set. Senior setter Gabrielle Aihara also made the list after finishing ninth in Division II with 11.82 assists per set to go with 27 aces and 2.94 digs per set.

Senior outside hitter Bridgette Webb is the fourth returning starter. She earned Honorable Mention All-GNAC honors after averaging 2.23 kills and 1.12 blocks per set. Central will be further bolstered by junior transfer Diana Fa’amausili, who earned GNAC Freshman of the Year and First Team All-GNAC honors in 2016 while with Alaska Anchorage.

The Seawolves improved by two wins over the 2017 season and matched the program’s 14-6 conference record. Alaska Anchorage counted itself as part of the GNAC’s blocking juggernaut, ranking 20th nationally with 2.33 blocks per set. The Seawolves led the GNAC with 1.66 aces per set and a .153 opponent’s hitting percentage.

Sophomore right-side hitter Eve Stephens will key the UAA offense after earning First Team All-GNAC and conference Freshman of the Year honors in 2018. Stephens finished with a .330 hitting percentage while averaging 3.18 kills and 0.76 blocks per set. She will be complemented by senior outside hitter Vanessa Hayes, who averaged 2.56 kills and 1.25 digs per set, and junior middle blocker Vera Pluharova, who amassed a .211 hitting percentage and averaged 1.19 blocks per set. Sophomore Ellen Floyd excelled as a freshman as the Seawolves’ primary setter, averaging 8.33 assists and 2.26 digs per set.

Alaska Anchorage will also welcome back 2014 GNAC Freshman of the Year Kayla McGlathery, who returns at middle blocker after a four-year absence from the game.

Simon Fraser maintained a level of consistency in its fourth-place finish last year, posting its fourth season of 15 wins or more under head coach Gina Schmidt. A solid defensive squad, the Clan led the GNAC and ranked 15th in Division II with 19.57 digs per set while also ranking among the conference’s top-three in assists per set, kills per set and hitting percentage.

The Clan is one of three programs to return five starters. Senior outside hitter Kirsten Pinkney earned Honorable Mention All-GNAC honors after averaging 3.12 kills per set with 31 blocks. Junior setter Julia Tays also received Honorable Mention All-GNAC honors as she averaged 10.84 assists and 2.70 digs per set to go along with a .225 hitting percentage and 24 blocks. Simon Fraser will also be solid on defense with the return of senior Katerina Dolguikh (3.70 digs per set) and junior Bianca Te (3.30 digs per set) at the libero and defensive specialist positions.

After finishing seventh in the GNAC in 2017 and no better than sixth since 2009, Alaska used an impressive second-half run to finish tied for fourth in the conference in 2018 and improve by seven conference wins over the year before. The surge was bolstered by a seven-match win streak that went into October and a finish that saw the Nanooks win 11 of their last 14 matches. Alaska finished the season with a .182 hitting percentage and 12.20 kills per set.

Junior setter Cate Whiting leads the list of five Alaska returning starters. She earned First Team All-GNAC honors after finishing with 9.97 assists and 2.30 digs per set to go along with a .273 hitting percentage. Junior outside hitter Lahra Weber also made the GNAC first team after she finished fourth in the league with 3.61 kills per set to go with a .194 hitting percentage. Senior middle blocker Kim Wong averaged 1.80 kills and 1.02 blocks per set while finishing with 101 total blocks.

Seattle Pacific tied with Concordia for sixth in 2018. After a tough start to the season, losing six of their first eight matches, the Falcons rebounded to win five of their first six GNAC contests. The team went on to stun Alaska Anchorage in five sets on Nov. 1 at the Alaska Airlines Center. Seattle Pacific finished the season averaging 12.23 kills per set and was fourth in the GNAC with 2.20 blocks per set.

Outside hitter Gabby Oddo returns for her senior season after picking up First Team All-GNAC honors last year. Oddo averaged 3.48 kills and 3.11 digs per set while amassing a .202 hitting percentage. She is complemented at the net by junior middle blocker Gabi Stegemoller, who averaged 1.24 kills and 0.81 blocks per set, along with senior outside hitter Jaeden Hooker and her 2.26 kills per set.

After seven seasons straight with 15 or more wins, Northwest Nazarene hit a speed bump in 2018 after losing most of the starting lineup that led the Nighthawks to the NCAA West Regional. Picked to finish seventh, the Nighthawks averaged 11.56 kills per set last year and were fourth in the GNAC with 18.15 digs per set.

Northwest Nazarene returns 12 players and four starters, forming the base for a potential climb. Junior outside hitter Abbey Blum averaged three kills per set while sophomore middle hitter Tayler Markland averaged 1.66 kills per set to go with a .287 hitting percentage and 72 blocks. Senior setter Megan Nelson brings solid experience with her average of 6.07 assists per set.

Picked a close eighth, Concordia features experience with nine returning players and four returning starters. The Cavaliers averaged 11.99 kills per set and ranked second in the GNAC with 1.56 aces per set. The offense will be paced by senior outside hitter Jessica Wheeler, who averaged 2.45 kills per set, and sophomore middle blocker Katelyn Brandenburg with her 1.60 kills and 0.88 blocks per set. Concordia also brings back an experienced setter in sophomore Emily Zink, who averaged 5.03 assists and 1.91 digs per set.

Montana State Billings returns a solid corps of offensive players but will have to make up the loss of its two most experienced players in middle blocker Miranda McConnell and libero Izela Alvarez. Junior outside hitter Maddi Vigil will pace the offense after averaging 2.53 kills and 3.19 digs per set in 2018. Sophomore middle blocker Eavan Taylor played a key role as a freshman, averaging 1.34 kills and 1.03 blocks per set, while junior setter Alexa Smythe averaged 5.79 assists per set to go with 33 aces.

Picked 10th, Western Oregon will have a whole new look with first-year head coach Stacy Metro and a new starting lineup. The Wolves finished 2018 averaging 11.02 kills per set and was third in the GNAC with 1.53 aces per set. Junior outside hitter Sianna DeCarli returns after playing in all 27 matches last year. She averaged 1.69 kills per set with a .194 hitting percentage.

Saint Martin’s looks to continue the rebuild process with the loss of both of its Honorable Mention All-GNAC selections. Senior outside hitter Ula Kamaka will lead the offense after averaging 2.57 kills and 2.22 digs per set. The Saints also return an experienced setter in sophomore Alyssa Bartlett, who averaged 7.71 assists and 2.14 digs per set.

Alaska Anchorage, Saint Martin’s and Western Washington will open the 2019 season with tournament matches on Thurs., Sept. 5. The remainder of the GNAC teams open play on Fri., Sept. 6. Alaska Anchorage and Concordia will host home matches with the Seawolves hosting the UAA Invitational and Concordia hosting the Concordia Volleyball Classic.

Rank Team (1st Place Votes) 2018 Record GNAC Record (Finish) Pts.
1. Western Washington (7) 30-4 20-0 (1st) 114
  Central Washington (4) 23-6 16-4 (2nd) 114
3. Alaska Anchorage 21-7 14-6 (3rd) 93
4. Simon Fraser 15-11 12-8 (tie 4th) 90
5. Alaska 14-13 12-8 (tie 4th) 75
6. Seattle Pacific 11-16 9-11 (tie 6th) 63
7. Northwest Nazarene 6-21 6-14 (9th) 53
8. Concordia 12-15 9-11 (tie 6th) 50
9. Montana State Billings 13-17 7-13 (8th) 36
10. Western Oregon 6-21 3-17 (10th) 26
11. Saint Martin's 4-22 2-18 (11th) 12
Points awarded on 11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis.