The first inkling came from the very first match of the NCAA volleyball season, a 9 a.m. start at Purdue on August 26: Washington State swept Kentucky. The news made you pause.
The next day, however, the Cougars lost to Purdue in four. But then, quietly, Washington State won nine in a row before losing at Baylor on September 17 and, well, the Cougars were simply below the radar.
Until last week.
That’s when they went to Washington and shocked the then-No. 4 Huskies in four, before going to UCLA and knocking off the then-No. 9 Bruins in five.
And suddenly previously unranked Washington State (12-2 overall, 2-0 Pac-12) vaulted to No. 17 in the AVCA Division I poll, the first time the program has sniffed the top 25 since 2009.
“Last week was a good week,” sixth-year WSU coach Jen Stinson Greeny admitted with a happy laugh.
“I’m very proud of the team getting two road wins against top-10 teams.”
And now they face another one, because No. 9 Stanford, which won in five at Washington on Wednesday, visits WSU on Friday.
It’s a match that has huge potential significance for Washington State, a program that was in dismal shape when Greeny, a former Cougar herself who trained with the USA national team in 1997, took over. She inherited a team that went 6-22 overall, 0-18 in the Pac-12 in 2010.
Not that things got better in a hurry.
In 2011, her first year, WSU improved to 12-20, 4-18. In 2012, the Cougars were 13-19, but 3-17 in the league.
“I try to block those first few years out,” Greeny said, laughing.
In 2013, Washington State finished 18-15, a winning record, albeit 5-15 in the Pac-12. And even in 2014, things were still awful in conference play, as the team finished 10-22, 1-19. In case you wondered, it was a mid-season home victory over Utah that kept the Cougars from having a goose egg.
Finally last year things began to turn. WSU went 16-16 overall and 5-15 in the Pac-12.
“We took over at a time when Washington State volleyball was not in a good place,” Greeny said. “To build it up it we needed stability and to improve recruiting and we tried to get better every single year. I think we’re seeing the fruits of our labor.”
She gets a big boost in recruiting from Burdette Greeny, her husband and assistant coach. They have two daughters. They’re both from the state of Washington, Jen from Davenport and Burdette from Port Angeles, where his mother was the high school volleyball coach.
They had been successful as a coaching tandem at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho.
“We spent the first two years without really any of our recruits,” Jen Greeny said. “So we just trained and tried to make a culture change. And the way the recruiting process is, we were recruiting so far out that when we took the job late in 2011 we had to look to 2013. And that’s two years removed from where we were at. So making that culture change was pretty slow, but I think we’re to that point and it’s definitely a big difference from where it was.”
She credits Burdette, who spearheads their recruiting, for making a great pitch, which included asking prep players if they wanted to be part of the change and taking a chance on being part of something special.
Accordingly, Washington State has four seniors this year who have helped make it happen.
“It’s a special group because they have stuck through the really difficult times and those growing pains and they can look back now and see the culture change and they were a big part of it,” she said. “And see how different they are as people and players, too.”
They are Haley MacDonald, a setter from Bothel, Wash.; Tani Stephens, a defensive specialist from Albany, Ore.; Hailey Bethune, an outside hitter from Stockton, Calif.; and Kyra Holt, an outside from Hercules, Calif., who is the reigning Pac-12 offensive player of the week.
Greeny, who was a three-time all-conference player herself, talked about all four.
“All four individually have something different. Tani Stephens has always been the steady person on and off the court and not wavering and she’s had to come out of her shell on the court.
“Kyra, she’s been good on the court but has had to mature as a leader off the court.
“Haley MacDonald has had to really trust the process. And she has done a fantastic job this year, running the 6-2 (with junior Nicole Rigoni as the other setter) and trusting what we’re doing.
“And then Hailey Bethune might have made the biggest change, just in her mindset. She’s grown and focused on getting better throughout the process.
“They each have something different and they’ve hung in there and we’re proud of them as a coaching staff.”
Holt was on the Pac-12 all-freshman team in 2013. As a sophomore, she led the team with 3.38 kills per set, 10th best in the league. And last year she was first-team All-Pac-12 and was sixth in the league at 3.91 kills per set. This year she’s got 189 kills, averaging 3.78 per set, and is hitting .247. She’s got 124 digs, second only to freshman libero Alexis Dirige, who has 194.
Sophomore outside McKenna Woodford has 131 kills and is a block behind Holt with 28.
Claire Martin, a sophomore middle who has 65 blocks, six solo, is the current Pac-12 defensive POW. Her 1.59 blocks per set average is third in the league and 11th in the NCAA.
“We know at Washington State we’re not always going to get the blue chip volleyball players,” Greeny admitted. “So what we’re going to try to do is find somebody who’s going to fit in and we can train. Claire was a basketball player who didn’t play a ton of high-level volleyball. She’s made huge strides. She’s puts a pretty intimidating block up there.”
Which brings us to Taylor Mims, is having a big season, hitting .379 with 99 kills and a team-best 73 blocks, 10 solo. She’s a sophomore middle from Billings, Mont., of all places.
“There are not a lot of high-level volleyball players coming out of the state of Montana,” Greeny said. “But she’s an unbelievable athlete, super quick and she did some great things in both the Washington and UCLA matches. And she’s just scratching the surface in learning the sport. She still has a long way to go, but she’s been a key factor.”
That victory over Kentucky was a month and three days ago, with a long way left to this NCAA season.
As mentioned Stanford visits Pullman on Friday, Cal comes to town Sunday, and then the Cougars go to Oregon State and Oregon. Clearly there’s a chance for Washington State to keep it going and years from now Greeny might be able to look back at 2016 and not have to block it out.