Washington State coach Jen Greeny has her hands full this year. So many freshmen.
“The 25 of them?” Greeny joked. “We have seven true freshmen and three redshirt freshmen.
“First of all, that’s too many. I’m just really proud of the way that they have continued to learn, and every single day they’re getting better and more consistent.”
Indeed they have, as the Cougars have run up a 13-3 record, 2-2 in the Pac-12 conference, and are ranked No. 24 for the second straight week in the AVCA Coaches Poll despite starting a youth-laden lineup with four freshmen out on the floor much of the time.
At the center of it all is redshirt-freshman setter Hannah Pukis, a 5-foot-11 lefty from Tacoma, Washington. When the Cougars won in five this past Sunday, Pukis not only had five kills in 12 errorless attempts, she had 53 assists, two aces, two blocks and 14 digs. For the season, she’s averaging 9.62 assists per set.
Her favorite target is senior Jocelyn Urias, a 6-3 middle from Tijuana, Mexico, who not only leads the team with a .321 hitting percentage, she’s been showing the freshmen the way.
“Jocelyn is fantastic,” Greeny said. “A fifth-year senior, she runs the slide really well and when you’ve been in this program for five years, you understand the expectations, what we want as coaches, and she does a really nice job of helping our youngsters figure that out.”
Senior libero Alexis Dirige appreciates Urias’ experience as well as her 125 kills, eight assists, 10 aces, 41 digs, and 37 blocks, six solo.
“Jocelyn is the veteran on the team. You know what you can count on her for, you know what she’s going to do each game, she might not be the loudest person on the court, but the way she plays, you just know that’s a strong present, and she’s reliable, and that’s what you need with a team that has so many freshmen.”
Dirige, too, has had to step up and lead. She’s done just that with 249 digs (4.53/set), 47 assists, 22 aces, and even a kill.
“Overall, we have a lot of freshmen starting, so we’re just trying to figure out ways to help them with their mindset, to have a tough mindset, the entire match,” Dirige said.
“As a senior, it’s a little tough having so many freshmen, because I’m used to having a team where we can get after one another, hold each other accountable, and people are going to respond well.
“But with a lot of freshmen, they’re new to this, they’re a little softer right now, so we have to find a balance between being really tough on them, but also letting them know, ‘Hey, no matter what happens, we’re still OK, it’s not personal.’
“We’re definitely being hard on them so they can build that toughness on the court starting now.”
Greeny acknowledges not only Dirige’s stats, but her attitude. After all, the product of San Francisco is the shortest player on the court at 5-foot-2 but led WSU in digs last season with 562, fourth in the Pac-12.
“Alexis started at libero since she was a freshman, so she’s really the floor captain out there,” Greeny said. “I’m most proud of what she has done mentally with her game and it doesn’t matter what’s going well or not so well, her mentality is always fantastic.”
“She helps a lot with the team,” Urias agreed. “I think she’s the main leader of the team right now, with her voice, her attitude, and her effort every time, every practice, every game. She’s a really good person to play with.”
The remainder of the Cougars’ freshman cadre includes Pia Timmer, a 6-2 outside from Emlichheim, Germany (who leads the team with 152 kills and has 13 aces, 102 digs, and 17 blocks, four solo); Magda Jehlarova, a 6-3 middle from Prerov, Czech Republic (110 kills, .287 hitting percentage, and 71 blocks, 14 solo); Alexcis Lusby, a 6-5 outside from Sparks, Nevada (99 kills, .270 percentage, 17 digs, and 48 blocks, two solo); and Julia Norville, a 5-8 defensive specialist from Orangevale, California (eight assists, nine aces and 68 digs).
The lineup might be filled with newbies, but the coaches are veterans. Greeny, the former Washington State star herself (she’s coached or play in nine of WSU’s 13 NCAA appearances), is in her ninth season, capping her eighth with a run to last year’s NCAA Tournament round of 16. And at her side the entire time has been her husband, Burdette, the WSU associate head coach.
The former Jen Stinson, who had an amazing four-year run as the head coach at Lewis and Clark, is now 145-133 as the coach at her alma mater, 257-157 career. A key, she said, is how well she and Burdette work together.
“We know our strengths, we know what job each other has, and we trust each other,” she said, “so it creates a unique and special environment for our players. It really and truly is a family.” Speaking of which, they have two daughters, Lauren and Leah.
“Playing for Jen and Burdette is great,” Dirige said. “Together they have really good chemistry, their lives stay out of the gym, when they come in the gym, we just know that they’re both there to help us win, and that’s their only goal, to help us win and be successful.”
Washington State has had an interesting season. The Cougars lost their second match, getting swept by Iowa, but then won 12 in a row, including opening Pac-12 play by upsetting then No. 8 Washington in four in Spokane. That marked the program’s first win over a top-10 team since 2016.
Three days later, they lost in five at then-No. 21-Cal, and then last Friday night got swept at unranked UCLA. But they bounced back by winning in five at USC, rallying in the fifth for a 25-20, 25-22, 26-28, 16-25, 15-13 victory. The Cougars had three match points in the third set. But when it ended, Urias led with 18 kills and hit .441 and Timmer had 17 kills.
“We know that we don’t have the biggest team right now and to be in matches against teams in this conference, that we’re going to have to make those plays and be defensively really solid,” Greeny said.
The schedule could afford WSU an opportunity get a little momentum going. Banged-up and slumping Oregon comes to town Friday, Oregon State visits on Sunday, and then the Cougars stay home the following weekend for Arizona and Arizona State.
“On certain days, we’re really good. And on certain days, we’re not as good. I think that’s what comes with so much youth. For half of our team, they’re seeing these Pac-12 teams for the very first time,” Greeny said.
“With that comes as little bit of inconsistency, but when we play well, I think we’re a good team.”