|Vandals ride streak into tourney|
PHOENIX, Ariz. – The Idaho volleyball team is peaking at the right time as it brings a season-best five-match win streak into the Western Athletic Conference tournament, which begins for the fourth-seeded Vandals at 6:30 (PT) on Nov. 25 against No. 5 Kansas City. The 2013 WAC tournament will be played on the Grand Canyon University campus in Phoenix, Ariz.
Idaho’s last loss came on Oct. 31 against New Mexico State, the regular season WAC champion and top-seed in the tournament. The Vandals are 18-10 overall and 11-5 in WAC play this season, and a 19th win would match the team’s highest total since winning 25 matches back in 1996. Idaho has two 19-win seasons (2003, 2008) since then.
“Out of all of our teams, this is definitely a different one,” fourteenth-year head coach Debbie Buchanan said. “They don’t get too up-tight. I’ve noticed even when we start to get down a little bit, for the most part they stay fairly calm. This is a funny group of kids, they have fun and they want to compete, and hopefully we can bring the best of that into this tournament.”
Idaho won both of its regular-season matches against Kansas City (15-13, 9-7 WAC), winning 3-0 in Moscow and 3-1 in Kansas City. Four Idaho players averaged 2.0 kills per set or better while hitting .300 or better against the ‘Roos this year. Junior Jessica Hastriter averaged 3.86 kills per set with a .324 hitting percentage against UMKC, while redshirt-freshman Ali Forde averaged 3.20 kills with a .394 hitting percentage. Idaho hit .292 as a team in its two matches against the ‘Roos.
Of course, it should come as no surprise that several Vandals put up big offensive numbers against Kansas City, because that’s what Idaho has been doing all season. Idaho’s .247 team hitting percentage is the best in the WAC, 51st in the nation, and the program’s best in a season since 1996. Six different Idaho hitters are averaging 1.50 or more kills per set in 2013 and four are hitting above Idaho’s season-average of .247.
“From the offensive standpoint, we’ve been more balanced and we’re getting more kids involved,” Buchanan said. “Our offensive numbers have been pretty good. Now, if we can keep our defense and ball control up, I think it can be our match on any night.”
One of the biggest pieces of Idaho’s offense is junior middle blocker Alyssa Schultz, the WAC Preseason Player of the Year who leads the league with a .378 hitting percentage and averages 2.52 kills and 1.20 blocks per set. Despite being a first-team all-WAC selection as a sophomore in 2012, this will be Schultz’s first WAC tournament since her freshman campaign, as she suffered an ankle sprain in practice before last year’s tournament, holding her out of Idaho’s title-match run.
“It will be awesome,” Buchanan said about seeing Schultz play in this year’s tournament. “Alyssa has been steady, especially in the last few matches. She’s really starting to turn a corner. She can make the difference in a lot of ways. Teams are double-teaming her and she’s either opening things up for other hitters or we’re pushing he the ball and she’s able to get those kills.”
The winner of Monday’s quarterfinal match will advance to face New Mexico State on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. (PT).The Aggies swept a pair of matches from Idaho in 2013 and knocked the Vandals off in last year’s WAC championship match. If Idaho wants to make a run in this year’s tournament, Buchanan said her team’s ball control is going to be crucial.
“The ball control is going to be the piece that’s going to be important to us,” Buchanan said. “Making sure that we’re locked in and taking care of the ball. Whether it’s serve-receive, defense, a tip or a roll shot coming over, we need to make sure that we push that up. Offensively between our four pin-hitters and our middles, we definitely have arms, we just have to get the ball to them.”
The other side of the six-team bracket features No. 2 Bakersfield (12-4), No. 3 Utah Valley (11-5) and No. 6 Seattle U (9-7). The WAC championship match will be Nov. 25 at 4 p.m. (PT).