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Playing in the Pac-12 was key for Woodford

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Sophomore outside hitter McKenna Woodford looks for a kill against Arizona on Nov. 13.

Sophomore outside hitter McKenna Woodford looks for a kill against Arizona on Nov. 13.

Sophomore outside hitter McKenna Woodford looks for a kill against Arizona on Nov. 13.

JESSE WOODHEAD | Evergreen reporter

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The Pac-12 has won more NCAA volleyball championships than any other conference in the NCAA and possesses one of the most competitive and intense groups of universities, with ever-changing standings and national rankings each week

WSU volleyball sophomore outside hitter McKenna Woodford said part of what makes playing in the Pac-12 so challenging is the elite level of competition.

“What makes it competitive is that every team carries extremely athletic and talented kids and any team could win on any given day,” Woodford said. “Everyone has weapons, so it’s a matter of reading the game and making adjustments.”

The Cougars (19-9, 9-7) opened the season in West Lafayette, Indiana, for the Purdue Mortar Board Premier tournament and won their first game against No. 24 Kentucky, prompting Woodford and the rest of the team to realize that the win marked the moment the program was again going to be competitive in the Pac-12.

With only four conference games remaining, WSU is looking to the future and hopes to come out of the game just as strong next season. The team loses four seniors in outside hitter Kyra Holt and Hailey Bethune, defensive specialist Tani Stephens and Haley MacDonald.

“I think the seniors made an incredible impact on this team,” Woodford said. “We also have a large sophomore class so we hope to carry on next year and show the players coming in what the seniors showed us.”

Likening the leadership of the four seniors to the program’s best start to conference play since 1997, Woodford said the team’s strong play lies in its relationships with one another. Woodford also said that WSU’s weakness comes in looking past those friendships and not realizing how good the team can be.

“Our strength is that we are so close with each other,” Woodford said. “We really get along and we are each other’s best friends. I’ve never experienced team chemistry like this, where all 16 girls get along. Every game, we fight for each other.”

The end to an ultra-competitive season in the Pac-12 will be bittersweet for Woodford and the four seniors next weekend, but the team can go out on top with another win over No. 8 Washington. WSU defeated the Huskies 3-1 on Sept. 21 for the program’s first win in Seattle since 2004.

A few weekends ago, Head Coach Jen Greeny switched up her usual starting lineup for the Cougars. Several new faces were seen, and it seemed to inspire WSU to fight with something different and remember their purpose in playing for a Pac-12 program.

“It was good move,” Woodford said. “We were struggling to get out of the rut so the best way to do that is change. It was a humbling experience for me. I really had to work for my position and earn my spot. It motivated everyone to work harder.”

Making the jump from high school to Division I volleyball is huge for any athlete, but is only amplified in the Pac-12. Woodford, originally from Chandler, Arizona, earned four varsity letters in high school and chose WSU in order to be a part of a program-wide culture change.

“I chose WSU because I love the underdog position,” Woodford said. “This is a tough conference for a team that wasn’t known before but is coming up in the rankings now.”

WSU will play two teams this weekend in the Rocky Mountains in No. 16 Utah and Colorado, both of which beat WSU at home earlier in the season. Woodford said the Cougs will again look to pounce on another set of Pac-12 foes and continue to revitalize the WSU volleyball program.

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Playing in the Pac-12 was key for Woodford