|Idaho sights set on WAC crown|
On Oct. 23 the Idaho volleyball team was just 5-4 in Western Athletic Conference play coming off a loss at Hawai'i. Sitting 2.5 games out of second place in the conference standings with just five to play, it appeared the Vandals would be fighting for third with three other teams all within a game of Idaho.
But things can change a lot in three weeks, and they did.
The Vandals finished the season on a five-match win streak which included a dominating senior-day win over then-second place New Mexico State, a miraculous comeback win on the road against Utah State, and final-day jump into second place in the WAC standings. That jump gave the Idaho a first-round bye into the semifinals of the WAC Tournament and its highest finish in its seven years in the league. Three of those five wins came on the road, including a 3-1 win at Nevada to finish the season.
"Once we lost to Hawai'i we immediately made our goal to come in second," Idaho senior libero Cassie Hamilton said. "We knew we would have to beat just about everyone after that match to do it. We came out, and I can't believe what we did on the road, beating some of those teams. Even when we played Nevada at their home, it was their senior night and they were really into it. Beating teams like that when they're pumped up for the game is hard to do, and I'm really proud that we were able to win all the matches that we did."
It was obvious the Vandals were playing their best volleyball the final weeks of the season. Just ask the WAC, which honored an Idaho player as conference Player of the Week in each of the final three weeks of conference play. Sophomore outside hitter Allison Walker took home two of those honors, and earned three for the season.
"I think we're starting to play really well and we're all starting to connect on the floor," Walker said. "It's a big improvement from last season and from throughout this season to just be able to work together on the court, and getting so much more used to playing with the girls who are out there. Anyone can come in and we just play as a team."
The Vandals hope to continue the upward trend when the tournament begins next week, and Idaho coach Debbie Buchanan likes the mentality of the team heading in.
"We're just getting stronger as the season goes on," Buchanan said. "Right now we have some good leadership, but the one thing that they haven't done is they haven't complained. We're practicing at six in the morning and they're here and they're ready to go. They're handling the adversity of the season. Playing on the road in the preseason so much probably helped us at the end of the season go on the road and be able to handle that. We've just shown a little bit of character, that we can handle it, that we're a little tougher than we were last year."
The tournament takes place at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nev. The Vandals will play their semifinal match on Nov. 22 at 5 p.m. against the winner of (2) New Mexico State and (6) San Jose State. Idaho split the regular season series with both teams, with the home team winning every match in both series.
"You have two teams that are both playing really well," Idaho coach Debbie Buchanan said of New Mexico State and San Jose State. "We have to be focused on that match. I think our composure is pretty good and right now they're really focused. They're ready, they're focused and they have this goal in mind and it's great."
With a win, Idaho will advance to its first WAC championship match in program history where it would face either (1) Hawai'i, (4) Utah State or (5) Fresno State. But considering Hawai'i enters the tournament ranked No. 6 in the nation, went 14-0 in the WAC this season and has been in every WAC championship match since the inception of the tournament in 1996, all signs point to Hawai'i advancing to the finals. And if the Vandals reach the championship match, they wouldn't want to face anybody else.
"I want them," Hamilton said about another chance to face Hawai'i. "I don't want them to lose before then. I think we can beat them just like we can beat any other team, and I would love for my last year to beat them in the finals. I hope it's them and us."
The WAC championship match is Nov. 23 at 6 p.m. and will be broadcast live on ESPNU.