Wildcats Are Unanimous Favorite In VB Poll
The Wildcats return a roster chalk-full of talent and are the unanimous favorites in the 2023 preseason coaches poll.
The Wildcats return a roster chalk-full of talent and are the unanimous favorites in the 2023 preseason coaches poll.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023
by Evan O'Kelly

PORTLAND, Ore. – Receiving all 10 first-place votes in the 2023 preseason poll, Central Washington University was the unanimous pick by the Great Northwest Athletic Conference coaches to hoist the trophy this fall.

CWU claimed 100 points to top the list of 10 teams, making it the clear favorite over second-ranked Western Washington (85 points). It was the first time a GNAC team emerged as the unanimous preseason favorite since Western Washington received all 11 first-place votes in the 2018 preseason poll. It is the first time the Wildcats were picked to win the league since the 2019 season, when they tied for first place in the preseason poll with Western Washington.

Rank Team (1st Place Votes) 2022 GNAC Record (Finish) Points
1. Central Washington (10) 17-11 11-7 (T3rd) 100
2. Western Washington 21-6 16-2 (2nd) 85
3. Seattle Pacific 13-13 11-7 (T3rd) 72
4. Simon Fraser 13-14 10-8 (5th) 71
5. Alaska Anchorage 27-3 17-1 (1st) 61
6. Alaska 18-12 8-10 (7th) 55
7. Northwest Nazarene 16-10 9-9 (6th) 38
8. Western Oregon 9-17 5-13 (8th) 35
9. Saint Martin's 13-15 3-15 (9th) 20
10. Montana State Billings 7-20 0-18 (10th) 13

Points awarded on a 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis.

Returning the most experienced cast of veterans in the conference, the Wildcats will ride their depth in their quest for their first conference title since back-to-back crowns in 2004-05. CWU has been knocking on the door of the title finishing in the top-three in the conference each of the last five seasons, including a third-place finish a season ago with a record of 17-11 (11-7 GNAC).

Under the guidance of 28th-year head coach Mario Andaya, the Wildcats will look to a cast of three AVCA All-Americans who return from the 2022 roster. Tia Andaya – the coach’s daughter – averaged 2.57 kills per set, 5.43 assists per set, and 1.92 digs per set on her way to breaking the GNAC career record for triple doubles with 12. The first-team all-conference and all-region setter/outside hitter is among the league’s most versatile returners.

Outside hitter Ashley Kaufman and middle blocker Emma Daoud-Hebert are also returning All-Americans from CWU’s 2022 roster, and both were all-region and first-team all-conference selections a year ago. Kaufman ranked sixth in the GNAC with 3.00 kills per set, while Daoud-Hebert led the league with 1.50 blocks per set and a hitting percentage of .387.

Outside hitter Kylie Thorne and libero Hannah Stires give the Wildcats two more returning all-conference selections. The Wildcats picked up Portland State transfer Morgan Halady, who will join the program alongside four incoming freshmen.

Western Washington is expected to be a title contender in 2023, just as it has been since the conference’s inception in 2001. The Vikings have finished first or second in the league in 18 of 21 seasons, including 10 conference titles under the helm of veteran head coach Diane Flick-Williams. WWU went 21-6 last season, and finished as the conference runner-up with a league mark of 16-2.

While opposite side hitter Gabby Kepley is the lone returning starter for WWU, the Vikings return a plethora of talent that learned under a seasoned 2022 senior class. Kepley averaged 2.02 kills per set and racked up 57 total blocks while starting 22 matches last fall. Outside hitter Devyn Oestreich chipped in 1.97 kills per set and 2.52 digs per set while seeing action in 13 matches. Setter Adele Holland and outside hitter Kylie Honrud both sat out in 2022, but bring the Vikings experience from a solid 2021 campaign. Holland averaged 4.22 assists per set in 2021, while Honrud saw action in 15 matches that season.

The Vikings bid farewell to first-team all-GNAC selections Calley Heilborn, Malia Aleaga, Chloe Roetcisoender, and 2021 GNAC Player of the Year Gabby Gunterman, leaving big shoes to fill for this year’s roster. WWU is set to bring in five freshmen to bolster its roster, along with four more returners.

Seattle Pacific matched Central Washington with a record of 11-7 to tie for third last season, and was picked to finish third in the preseason poll. The Falcons return a healthy cast of starters, with first-team all-conference middle blocker Hannah Hair headlining the list. Hair ranked seventh in the league in hitting percentage at .345 and in blocks per set with 1.06, as she stands as one of the most dominant presences at the net in the league.

Allison Wilks was an honorable mention all-conference pick in 2022 after ranking eighth in the conference in aces with 0.38 per set and ninth in hitting percentage at .280. Libero Abigail Cunningham is back after ranking sixth in the conference with 3.76 digs per set, setter Emily Tulino is coming off averages of 4.76 assists and 2.22 digs, and outside hitter Sarah Brachvogel averaged 1.36 kills while contributing 42 total blocks.

The Falcons will have to replace setter Lindsay Lambert and outside hitter Ashley Antoniak, and will look to do so with four freshman and Idaho transfer Anna Pelluer, who will also be in her freshman season of eligibility.

Checking in just one point behind the Falcons in fourth place, Simon Fraser will look to build off a league record of 10-8 in 2022 that slated it fifth in the final conference standings. First-team all-GNAC opposite Brooke Dexter is one of the league’s top returners, averaging 2.85 kills per set (seventh) and 3.41 points per set (seventh) a season ago. GNAC Freshman of the Year Eva Person ranked fifth in the conference with 5.98 assists per set, Kalyn Hartmann ranked 10th in the league with 0.99 blocks, and Jocelyn Sherman is a returning honorable mention all-league outside hitter who averaged 2.63 kills last year.

Equipped with the majority of their top players from the 2022 campaign, the Red Leafs are set to welcome eight new freshmen into the fold this fall.

The departure of Ron Lenz National Player of the Year Eve Stephens was the primary factor in bumping reigning GNAC champion Alaska Anchorage to fifth in the preseason poll, after the GNAC career kills leader piloted the program to a 17-1 first-place finish in 2022. First-team All-American setter Ellen Floyd will be difficult to replace, after ranking third in the conference with 9.99 assists per set in 2022.

Under the guidance of first-year head coach Stacie Meisner, UAA will look to returning starters Nicole Blue, Leilani Elder, and Isabel Evans to set the tone this season. Blue, an outside hitter, averaged 1.80 kills per set, while Elder and Evans – middle blockers – averaged 0.99 blocks and 1.04 blocks, respectively. Reilly Plumhoff, Madison Galloway, and Makana Eleneki – a trio of defensive specialists – will give the Seawolves a solid defensive baseline at the outset of the season.

Eastern Arizona transfers Kadyn Osborne (S) and Larssen Anderson (OH/RS) and Highline Community College transfers Khadijah Morgan (MB) and Bethany Tuchardt (OH/RS) will be joined by a trio of freshmen to round out UAA’s roster this fall.

Checking in at sixth in the preseason poll is Alaska, which features a strong base of five returning starters. Middle blocker Elizabeth Jackson heads up the list after ranking fourth in the league with 1.19 blocks per set last year. Karli Nielson’s 2.73 kills per set were good for ninth in the conference while pin Rilee White, middle blocker Kristina Head, and setter Ainsley Smith will also be looked upon in leadership roles this fall.

The Nanooks bid farewell to AVCA honorable mention All-American Jessa Long, who led the GNAC with 4.72 digs per set. Those libero duties could fall on Lafayette College transfer Grace Steurer or North Pole High School graduate McKenna Smith, who are the two newcomers on the roster listed at the position. Alaska welcomes four other transfers and two total new freshmen, among a roster that at its core remains strongly intact from 2022.

After finishing in sixth place with an even league record of 9-9 last year, Northwest Nazarene was tabbed to finish seventh in the preseason coaches poll. Caroline McMahon returns as one of the top liberos in the league, after ranking second in the conference with 4.64 digs per set and fifth in aces with 0.44 per set in 2022. Outside hitter Maren Dent will look to build upon a 2022 season that saw her average 1.83 kills, 3.05 digs, and 2.33 points. Right side Miya Koch is also back for NNU after chipping in 2.01 kills and 2.93 digs last season.

The Nighthawks will have to replace AVCA honorable mention All-American Olivia Wright who ranked second to Stephens in points per set with 4.04 last fall. First-team all-conference outside hitter Natalie Sullivan and honorable mention setter Mckenzie Lee will also leave a void in the Nighthawk lineup. NNU is set to bring in five freshmen for the 2023 campaign, including hometown libero Megan Tomlinson from Liberty Charter High School.

The Wolves of Western Oregon checked in at No. 8 in the preseason poll, after finishing in that spot with a conference record of 5-13 last year. First-team all-conference outside hitter Bailee Hartsook is the key returner, after averaging 2.48 kills per set during her sophomore season. Outside hitter Madi Hornback and setter Laney O’Neil are the Wolves other returning starters for WOU, which will look to replace honorable mention middle blocker Delaney Smith.

A pair of transfers in Central Arkansas outside hitter Sarah Strus and Linn-Benton Community College defensive specialist Taya Manibusan will be candidates to see the floor right away in their new uniforms.

Saint Martin’s was picked ninth in the preseason coaches poll, after posting a mark of 13-15 overall and 3-15 in conference play in 2022. Jennifer Soha was among the most efficient net players in 2022, ranking fourth in the conference in hitting percentage at .357 during her sophomore season. Karla Soto returns after ranking third in the league with 0.47 aces per set and fourth with 9.15 assists per set, while middle blocker Maddy Gooding notched a hitting percentage of .242 last fall. Abigail Halstead ranked ninth in the conference with 3.48 digs per set, and junior libero Kayla May, sophomore middle blocker Zoey Crimin, and sophomore outside hitter Emmy Hansen also return for the Saints.

Montana State Billings will look to bounce back from an 0-18 conference record in 2022, as the Yellowjackets rounded out the preseason poll ranked 10th. Honorable mention middle blocker Paiten Langston had a productive first year in the league, ranking 10th in hitting percentage at .273. Junior defensive specialist Christine Funk ranked fifth in the conference with 3.78 digs per set, with fourth-year Yellowjacket Kennedy Juranek providing a seasoned defensive presence as well. Fifth-year middle blocker Hannah Hayden provides the Yellowjackets with a strong presence at the net, and fourth-year outside hitter Jahsita Fa’ali’i is back after averaging 2.34 kills per set last season.

The ’Jackets lost veteran setter Hannah Hashbarger and honorable mention outside hitter Caty Havekost, but are set to revamp the roster with four incoming freshmen for the 2023 season.

The 2023 season kicks off on Aug. 24 with Alaska Anchorage and Alaska competing at the Alaska/Hawaii Challenge in Fairbanks. All 10 GNAC schools will be in action the week of Aug. 31, with early season tournaments running across the Western United States.