In what’s slated to be a season of growth, the Idaho volleyball team seeks to put its work into play next Friday at the Chevron Rainbow Wahine Invitational in Honolulu, where it’ll play for three straight days against Hawai’i (27-3 in 2014, 18-0 Big West), Oregon State (21-13, 9-11 Pac-12), and Wichita State (20-10, 13-5 Missouri Valley) respectively.
According to Big Sky volleyball coaches, Idaho is slated to finish fifth in the conference and Idaho State (23-9, 15-1 Big Sky) is the favorite. The Vandals earned 84 points, 24 points behind the Bengals.
In response, Idaho coach Debbie Buchanan, who’s entering her 16th season as head coach, said that fifth is a good spot to be in for the season.
“I think it will fire our girls up, to fight to finish at the top,” Buchanan said. “It is not necessarily where we have set our goals, but it is going to give everyone something to work for. Not being picked to finish at the top, we are going to have to prove ourselves, show up every day in practice and work to win the regular season and host the tournament.”
Entering their second season back in the Big Sky, the Vandals are looking to continue to extend their streak of finishing conference play at at least .500 for a 13th straight season.
They also want to fill the gaps where they struggled last season.
In spite of late-season struggles, Idaho went 11-5 in the Big Sky (15-14 overall) and led the conference in hitting percentage during league play with a .253.
After being sidelined with a knee injury against North Dakota (26-9, 13-3 Big Sky) last November, senior setter Meredith Coba is set to make her return to the court.
Despite her late-season injury, Coba totaled 1,118 assists, including 40 or more in 18 out of the 26 matches she played.
She’s also looking to add another Big Sky Player of the Week to her illustrious career like last season, highlighted with her 47 assists against Northern Arizona (21-8, 11-5 Big Sky), which tied her for the most assists in a three-set match in the Big Sky. Coba was ranked 26th in the NCAA in assists per set at 11.07 last season, and that mark led the Big Sky.
Along with Coba, seniors Tineke Bierma, Jenna Ellis and Katelyn Peterson seek to make more of an impact in their final seasons.
Bierma, who played 14 games last season as an outside hitter, has become known for her solid hitting near the net and is expected to break through after having six blocks, four service aces, and 15.5 points last season in 31 sets.
Ellis, a defensive specialist, led the team with 381 digs and had an average of 3.74 per set, which was ninth best in the conference.
Peterson, another outside hitter, earned all-tournament honors at the Active Ankle Challenge last season and finished the season with 234 total kills, which was second on the team.
Juniors Terra Varney and Michele Brown will also look for more progress this season. Varney averaged 3.32 digs per set in 108 sets last season and had 359 digs total. She also had 19 double-digit dig matches with a career-high 23 against Georgia Southern.
Brown earned a career-high in assists with 16 against Northern Colorado (22-11, 12-4 Big Sky) on Nov. 15th.
Changes have surrounded Idaho since its last game against Northern Arizona in November, where the Vandals were eliminated from the Big Sky Conference Tournament.
Recently, Kara Kiefer was hired as an assistant coach. Kiefer spent the past three seasons coaching at the club level.
The Vandals will be without Alyssa Schultz, Jessica Hastriter and Stephanie Hagins this season, all of whom played big roles last season as seniors.
Schultz, a middle blocker, was a First-Team All-Big Sky selection.
Hastriter, an outside hitter, had 11 matches with 10 or more kills. She also earned all-tournament honors at the Idaho Nike Invitational last season.
Hagins, a middle blocker, was last year’s Big Sky Conference Newcomer of the Year and she also earned first-team honors.
Defensive specialist Samantha Delmer and outside hitter Ali Forde, who both have eligibility left, will not return this season. Forde will continue to play basketball for the Vandals.
With Schultz and Hagins gone, the role of middle blocker will be predominately taken by Torrin Crawford and freshman Laine Waters.
Crawford played eight games last season with an average of 1.58 kills per set, highlighted by an error-free performance in a win over Weber State (7-24, 3-13 Big Sky).
Waters, from Tucson, Ariz., totaled 287 kills in 95 sets in her senior season at Tanque Verde High School.
Along with Waters, three other newcomers were added to the roster, two coming from Arizona — outside hitter Paige Rupiper of Phoenix and middle/outside hitter DeVonne Ryter of Sedona.
Rupiper, who played at Pinnacle High School, had 555 kills over 258 sets, 178 blocks, and 272 defensive digs in her four-year varsity career.
In her time at Sedona Red Rock High School, Ryter recorded a career hitting percentage of .357 and had 42 blocks. In her senior season, she recorded 4.4 kills per set, a .502 hitting percentage in 120 sets and a school-record 523 kills to help the school earn its 10th straight Division IV, Section IV volleyball title.
The fourth newcomer, Natalie Jensen, a setter from Tacoma, Wash., averaged 8.2 assists per set and finished her senior year with 698 assists at Bellarmine Prep. Jensen also earned First-Team All-State in 2013 and 2014 and led the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (W.I.A.A.) 4A tournament in assists.
Idaho’s first home game is Sept. 4th against Seattle U (14-17, 8-6 WAC) at 7 p.m. as part of the Idaho Volleyball Classic. The Vandals will play two teams the following day, starting with UC Irvine (19-12, 9-7 Big West) and then Washington State (10-22, 1-19 Pac-12) respectively.
After four invitationals in a span of three weeks, Idaho will play Northern Colorado Sept. 24th.
Other notable home games for the Vandals include Portland State (9-20, 7-9 Big Sky) Oct. 8th, Montana (6-23, 6-10 Big Sky) Oct. 31st and their final home game of the season is against Eastern Washington (9-20, 5-11 Big Sky) on Nov. 7th.
Idaho faces the Bengals Oct. 24th in Pocatello and the Vandals’ final regular-season game is against Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colo., Nov. 14th.
The winner of the Big Sky during the regular season will host the Big Sky Tournament Nov. 19-21.
Luis Torres can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org