BELLINGHAM, Wash. - With all but one starter returning from a team that won its second consecutive Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship and made its fifth NCAA Division II national tournament appearance in the last eight years, hopes are high as the Western Washington University women's volleyball team enters the 2014 season.
The Vikings were 23-4 a year ago, winning the GNAC with a 16-2 mark, and return 10 letter winners, including two All-Americans.
"Expectations can be a blessing and a curse," said WWU coach Diane Flick (15th year, 296-78), the school's record holder in career victories and winning percentage (.791). "A blessing because we can challenge ourselves to reach those expectations, but a curse because it can become overwhelming.
"We still need to accomplish the small things along the way. Every team is different, whether you've lost one senior or five, it's still a new team, where chemistry has to form and roles have to be figured out."
The two returning All-Americans are senior libero Samantha Hutchinson (University Place/Curtis) and senior middle blocker Kayla Erickson (Gig Harbor/Peninsula). Hutchinson was a first-team American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American last year and is a two-time GNAC Defensive Player of the Year. Her 6.91 digs per set last season were second in NCAA Division II, and her 1,671 career digs are third in school history, just 37 short of second place Allison Gotz.
"Sam not only plays great defense, she's the eyes on the court for us," Flick said. "She works with the block as much as she plays the ball, and it's nice to have a leader on the court who is also such a productive player."
Defense has always been a cornerstone of WWU's success, and the Vikings are unusually deep in back row players. Sophomore defensive specialist Bryce Larson (Mukilteo/Kamiak) had 231 digs last year, and senior Emily Cotter (University Place/Curtis), who also sees some time as an outside hitter, had 263.
"It helps that Sam, Bryce and Emily all work so well together," Flick said. "That's usually two-thirds of our defense. Our back court is really solid, and that defense adds to our offense."
Erickson, the 2013 GNAC Player of the Year, was a second-team Daktronics All-American and earned AVCA honorable mention. She averaged 3.65 kills and 1.18 blocks, notching a .380 attack percentage. Erickson led the GNAC in attack percentage, was third in blocks, and fourth in kills. She enters the season with a career attack percentage of .360, the best in school history.
"Kayla is a complete package, both for what you get with her as a player, and as a captain," said Flick. "She has always been a student of the game. She really has a great presence for learning, because she doesn't get bogged down in emotions."
There's a three-way battle for the other middle blocker spot between sophomores Sarah Caylor (Tacoma/Stadium) and Kelsey Fausko (Auburn/Auburn Mountain View) and redshirt freshman Joellee Buckner (Colville).
Junior Jennica McPherson (Seattle/Kennedy) has started every match at right-side hitter the last two seasons, earning first-team all-GNAC recognition last year. She averaged 2.57 kills and 2.50 digs in 2013, and has led the Vikings in service aces each of the last two seasons, notching 30 last year.
"Her position has slowly grown over time," Flick said. "She does the front row work, she's a good defensive player in the back row, and her jump serve is a weapon. She's a real all-around package for us."
There's a wealth of talent at outside hitter. Senior Kelsey Moore (Bellevue/Newport) was an honorable mention all-conference pick last year, averaging 2.96 kills and 0.59 blocks a set. Junior Rachel Roeder (Sammamish/Issaquah) was also a regular, averaging 2.17 kills with a .289 hitting percentage. Cotter has seen occasional duty in front over her three seasons, having as many as 11 kills in a match.
"In Kelsey and Rachel, as well as Emily, we have a really solid core with experience that have put up good hitting numbers and who are also good defensively with their blocking," Flick said. "Arielle and Haleigh add depth and give us some attacking variety."
At setter, senior Taylor Dillard (Milton/Fife) was a second-team Daktronics all-West Region selection last season, averaging a GNAC-high 11.70 assists per set, but she'll be pushed by redshirt freshman Kristina Tribley (Wenatchee).
"We have real depth in our setting corps," Flick said. "They have the luxury of good hitters around them. If you give our hitters a chance to have a good swing, they'll take care of the rest."
The Vikings were dominant enough last season to have the best attack percentage in the GNAC (.267) and hold opponents to the lowest percentage (.127). A third straight GNAC title would provide an automatic berth into the West Regional of the NCAA II National Tournament, a tourney where the Vikings were eliminated in the first round last season.
"This group is probably the most talented top-to-bottom we've had, but we have to put all that talent together," said Flick. "Ultimately, if we stay healthy, we have a lot we can accomplish."
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