The Whitworth Pirates head into the 2018 volleyball season focused on reclaiming a crown they held the previous three years. After winning three straight Northwest Conference titles from 2014 through 2016, Whitworth looks to bounce back from a second place finish in 2017.
"Our returners put in a great off-season," said sixth-year head coach Kati Bodecker, who is 91-43 over her first five years leading the Pirates, 64-16 against NWC opponents. "There is a renewed sense of urgency and commitment. This team is hungry to be back in contention for a conference championship."
The Pirates return three starters from a team that finished 15-10 overall and 12-4 (second place) in the conference last year. Several other players who saw game action off the bench also return. In addition, Whitworth welcomes five new players, four first-year Pirates and one who is not really new at all.
Erin White (RS Jr., Arlington, Wash.), who was a first team All-Northwest Conference setter while guiding Whitworth to its most recent conference championship in 2016, has returned from a year of focus on her nursing major.
"Erin is an outstanding player, but more than skill, she brings confidence and leadership to the court," Bodecker said. "Our players trust her and she does a great job of getting the best out of her teammates."
Saylor Anderson (Stanwood, Wash.), a first year player, will provide back up to White at setter.
White will have some good offensive options to work with, beginning with two-time first team All-NWC outside hitter Emiko Kahler (Jr. Happy Valley, Ore.). Kahler averaged 3.1 kills per set and hit .210 last season. Those numbers were even stronger in conference play, where she averaged 3.52 kills and hit .238.
The other starting outside hitter will likely be Jessica Schmautz (Sr., Spokane, Wash.), who was used in a variety of roles last season after transferring from the Community Colleges of Spokane. Schmautz averaged 1.04 kills and 2.21 digs per set in 2017.
Danielle Tang (RS So., Graham, Wash.) gained valuable experience off the bench last season and will back up Kahler and Schmautz on the outside.
Lauren Budde (Sr., Moraga, Calif.) returns as Whitworth's starting right side hitter. She earned honorable mention All-NWC in 2017 when she averaged 2.64 kills and 0.77 blocks against conference opponents. Her .283 hitting percentage was the team's best in league play.
Elise Anderson (Jr., Lake Oswego, Ore.) will back up Budde in 2018.
Madison Douglas (Jr., Thousand Oaks, Calif.) returns as one of the starting middle blockers. Douglas averaged 2.0 kills per set and led the Pirates in blocks (60) last season.
Bodecker has traditionally had two defenders on the floor at one time. She will need to replace the libero and the starting defensive specialist from last season. Laina Damon (Sr., Spokane, Wash.) and Kiana Vandaele (So., Makawo, Hawaii) worked hard during their time as back up players. Both appear ready to become starters.
However, it will take more than talent and experience to move the Pirates back to the top of the standings. Leaders also have to step up to replace six graduated seniors from 2017.
"I see Erin, Laina, Jessica and Lauren, our four seniors, along with Emiko leading this team on and off the court," Bodecker said. "They are a united group and they work well together."
Whitworth will begin the 2018 season with four matches at the Oregon Trail Classic in Newberg on October 31st and September 1st. The Pirates will play five matches at the Emory University National in Atlanta, Georgia the following weekend. Two matches against regional NAIA foe Lewis-Clark State will complete the non-conference slate.
The Northwest Conference schedule will be as challenging as ever. Pacific Lutheran is the defending champion and the Lutes return several key players. Pacific (Ore.) showed dramatic improvement last season and promises to continue to move up the standings. Puget Sound is a traditional power looking to rebound, while Whitman and George Fox made strong runs at the end of the season.
The Pirates will open their conference schedule at home against Willamette and Lewis & Clark on September 14th and 15th.