Volleyball’s preseason numbers are in, and one of the biggest surprises might be the Western Athletic Conference.
WAC teams, which have performed poorly in recent years, are 70-42 going into this week’s conference openers. Fifth-ranked Hawaii starts tomorrow against Utah State, then takes on Nevada on Friday.
The Rainbow Wahine have won the last 12 WAC championships.
Utah State hadn’t lost until going down 20-18 in the fifth against Utah Valley — a team Nevada beat — in its second match Friday. Utah State’s 12-1 start equals that of the 1979 team that lost to Hawaii in the AIAW Championship. The Aggies won at Utah for the first time in 20 years and are receiving votes in the poll for the first time in eight.
"We didn’t have any seniors last year," said Utah State coach Grayson DuBose, who has four now. "We missed that sense of urgency where everything you are doing is for the last time — the last trip to Hawaii, the last time you practice at 6 in the morning. We thought we’d be good, but we’d be good the next year, too. You can’t take anything for granted."
Utah State is one of six conference teams with at least five starters back. Most WAC teams are seasoned now, and successful. Louisiana Tech’s 9-5 preconference mark came against weak teams, but the Rainbow Wahine (10), Boise State (54) and Utah State (58) all are top 60 in RichKern.com’s Pablo Rankings, a power rating similar to the NCAA’s RPI. The WAC ranks 10th among 33 Division I conferences.
The conference is 11-1 against the Big Sky, 11-2 against the Mountain West — ranked ninth — and 4-1 against Conference USA. It won half its 12 matchups with teams from the West Coast Conference, which sent five teams to the NCAA tournament two years ago.
Conference players have earned 53 all-tournament honors, with Utah State senior libero Christine Morrill digging up four. Boise State (12-2) is off to its best start since 2004 and won the NFINITY Classic last week, with senior Sadie Maughan named MVP after hitting a smoking .638.
» When: 7 p.m. tomorrow and Friday
Others have also sizzled. USU junior Liz McArthur was a tournament MVP the first two weeks of the season, and Collegiate Volleyball Update national player of the week when she averaged more than six kills on opening weekend. Sophomore Brittany Hewitt broke a school record with 16 blocks in Hawaii’s opener.
The WAC has also proved tenacious, going 13-5 in five-setters. San Jose State was down 14-8 to Portland State in the fifth and scored eight in a row to win. The Spartans have five victories this year — four more than last season.
Even Idaho, which lost five starters, held an opponent to four points in one set.
"I felt like last year was a real down year for our conference. I knew we’d be better," said New Mexico State coach Michael Jordan, whose team is again picked to finish second to Hawaii. "I knew Utah State would be better because they return all their starters. Boise and Fresno are a little better, San Jose is better. … I think there is good talent in our league and teams have a little more veteran look this year."
The WAC’s winning percentage would have been even better if Jordan’s Aggies hadn’t lost two starters to injury in the space of six matches. They were 0-4 last week, but don’t expect to be down long. Senior hitter Kayleigh Giddens leads the league with six double-doubles and, the night after primary passer Stephanie Ziegler broke her leg, NMSU fell to LSU 17-15 in the fifth. The unbeaten Tigers are now ranked 17th.
Hawaii’s focus this week is Utah State and Nevada.
Chelsea Fowles, a senior setter, orchestrated the Aggies’ stunning sweep here three years ago. That ended a 108-match conference home winning streak. McArthur ranks 19th nationally in kills with 4.40 a set, just behind UH All-American Kanani Danielson (ninth at 4.63). The Aggies are 13th in blocking, with five WAC teams among the top 36. Hawaii is 24th, with Hewitt second individually.
"They’ll give Hawaii a hard time because they are a solid team," former UH All-American Deitre Collins said after USU defeated her San Diego State team. "There’s no spectacular player like Kanani or Brittany, but they are balanced and they are able to run their offense quick. I think that’s what you have to do to beat Hawaii — beat them to the pins."
Nevada presents a more familiar look. St. Francis graduate Kylie Harrington, a senior, is 10 kills from becoming its 10th player to reach 1,000. Kamehameha graduate Tatiana Santiago, a junior, is two assists from 1,000. Sophomores Kelly Chang (Hawaii Baptist) and Elissa Ji (Maryknoll) are also with Nevada, which has wins over Pacific and Notre Dame.