SPOKANE, Wash. – The 2018 volleyball season gets underway this weekend as the Whitworth Pirates travel to compete at the Oregon Trail Classic in Newberg, Oregon. While the tournament takes place at three different sites, all of Whitworth's matches will be at George Fox.
Friday's opponents are UC Santa Cruz and Elmhurst College. The Bucs will battle the College of New Rochelle and Johnson and Wales University (Colo.) on Saturday.
The Pirates: Whitworth finished second in the 2018 Northwest Conference preseason coaches poll after finishing second in the final 2017 NWC standings. The Bucs return three starters from last season, and one key starter from 2016. Junior OH Emiko Kahler is an NWC Player of the Year candidate after earning first team All-NWC recognition each of her first two seasons. Senior RS Lauren Budde broke through with an honorable mention All-NWC nod last season. Junior MB Madison Douglas developed throughout the fall and eventually led the squad in blocks.
Erin White, Whitworth's starting setter in 2016 when she was a first team All-NWC honoree, returns to direct the Pirates' attack after taking 2017 off to focus on her studies.
Senior Jessica Schmautz will likely become Whitworth's other starting outside hitter. Iris Tikhonov, a junior, will move into the open middle blocker role. Senior Laina Damon has been waiting in the wings for her shot at libero/defensive specialist.
Back to the Top?: Whitworth won three consecutive NWC crowns from 2014 through 2016 before falling to second place in 2017. The Pirates are hoping to return to the top of the standings in 2018, but they must overcome defending champion PLU and a rapidly improving team from Pacific (Ore.). Puget Sound is also a traditional contender for the title.
The Leader: Emiko Kahler has established herself as a dominant player in the NWC over her first two seasons. She was the 2016 NWC Freshman of the Year and earned a second straight first team All-NWC honor in 2017. She has averaged 3.04 kills per set over her first two seasons, as well as 3.07 digs per set. She is well on her way to 1,000 kills in her career with 551 and counting.
Erin's Back: Erin White led Whitworth to the 2016 Northwest Conference championship by leading the league in assists per set (10.22) while averaging 1.1 points per set. She received first team All-NWC recognition. White sat out 2017 to focus on her nursing major. She is a senior academically, but a junior in eligibility.
A Budding Star: Lauren Budde established herself as one of the more dangerous and athletic weapons in the NWC last season, averaging 2.36 and 0.70 blocks per set. Capable of hitting over many blockers, Budde received honorable mention All-NWC consideration.
The Coach: Kati Bodecker, 91-43 heading into her sixth season guiding the Pirates, is a three-time Northwest Conference Coach of the Year after leading Whitworth to three straight NWC titles from 2014 through 2016. Bodecker also directed the Pirates to three consecutive appearances in the NCAA Division III tournament. In 2013 she coached the Bucs to a 15-13 record, becoming the first Whitworth volleyball coach to post a winning record in her first season since Margaret Campbell in 1990. She previously had been the head coach at Priest River High School, leading the Spartans to five state tournament appearances, including a runner-up finish in 2012. She was a four-year starter at the University of Idaho, helping lead the Vandals to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances as a sophomore and junior.
The Opponents: UC Santa Cruz is an NCAA Division III independent and finished 6-21 in 2017. Sophomore OH Claire Okerlund became a starter during her freshman campaign and returns to lead the Banana Slugs. Whitworth won its last meeting with UCSC, 3-2 on September 3, 2016 in Santa Cruz, California.
Elmhurst College (Ill.) is a member of the powerful Collegiate Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW). The Bluejays finished 10-19 overall and 5-3 in the CCIW in 2017, and then graduated their entire starting lineup. A new roster brings new hope for Elmhurst. The Pirates and Bluejays have never played in volleyball.
The College of New Rochelle (N.Y.) has won five straight Hudson Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles. The Blue Angels lost in the first round of the 2017 NCAA Division III tournament to highly-ranked Colorado College and finished 20-11 last fall. Junior OH Imani DeBose is back to lead her squad. Whitworth and New Rochelle have never played each other.
Johnson & Wales University of Denver has completed its transition to NCAA Division III. The Wildcats will compete in the Southern Collegiate Athletics Conference after a long membership in the NAIA. JWU finished 2-26 in 2017 and eight of the 14 players on the 2018 roster are freshmen. Junior setter Ashlee Ruehs is one returning starter. The Pirates and Wildcats have never played each other.
Coming Up: Whitworth will head to the opposite corner of the country to compete in the Emory National Tournament in Atlanta, Georgia on September 7-8.