The University of Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks volleyball team returned Friday to the Alaska Airlines Court at the Patty Center for the Blue vs. Gold intrasquad scrimmage, the first of two preseason events the team is hosting this year to kick off what many are expecting will be the team’s most successful season.
The No. 5 Nanooks are entering the season with their highest Great Northwest Athletic Conference ranking after coming off a 14-13 campaign, their best season since 2008, when the team went 15-10. The 12-8 conference record was the team’s best since 2003 (13-5) and ended an eight-year drought against rival University of Alaska Anchorage with a three-set win.
The Nanooks have 10 players and all starters returning from 2018. In addition to outside expectations being put on the program this season, the team has set a high standard for itself.
“I think they have expectations just as much as anybody else does. There is nobody in this group that wants it any more than anybody else,” Nanooks head coach Brian Scott said at the post-scrimmage press conference.
Scott, in his fifth year at the helm of the program, has transformed the team into a conference contender. The team went 6-21 (2015) and 3-24 (2016) overall in his first two years and has seen a dramatic turnaround in his last two seasons, with a 12-17 overall record in 2017 and last year’s breakthrough season.
“Every year I’m like, ‘Man, this is such a great group. How can it get better?’ and every year it gets better and again this year, I can’t even tell you, this year has been amazing to see these girls just instantly come together and they’ve just jelled really fast,” the head coach said.
The team has gelled off the court, as well. Third-year starting setter Cate Whiting said while the team was apart during the summer, she was “counting down the days” until she would see her teammates again.
“I’m so far away from home,” the junior from South Dakota said. “We have girls from Germany and girls from Georgia and we are just so far away from home where we’re like a second family.”
Whiting is coming off a career season in which she managed 987 assists, was named to the All-GNAC First Team and GNAC All-Academic Team, and earned Team Scholar-Athlete and Nanooks’ Most Outstanding Female Athlete of the Year awards.
This season is particularly meaningful to Whiting and her teammates, as there were questions over the summer about whether the team would be able to play this season after budget cuts to the University of Alaska system were announced in July. On Aug. 2, it was confirmed that all athletic programs would continue for the 2019-20 academic year.
“I’m just really grateful that we have a chance, obviously, to continue doing what we want,” junior middle blocker Emily Moorhead said.
“Although it was kind of unfortunate, all the different things that were up in the air and us not really knowing what was happening, I just know it doesn’t really matter what happens so long as we have time on the court.”
Whiting agreed with her teammate.
“I’m really grateful for this season and year; we aren’t leaving anything on the court. Just every single game, just playing it like it’s the last point, even though it’s potentially not.”
Even though the Friday night match was only a four-set scrimmage, the team was living out Whiting’s words and played as if it were a real game. Scott was particularly proud of his team defensively.
“Some of the craziest balls that you think should go down, Markie (Miller) goes up and just rips a ball and somebody is there and just pops the ball up, and those kinds of plays are going to go a long way,” he said.
The ‘Nooks return to the Alaska Airlines Court on Aug. 31 to take on the alumni before opening their season in Golden, Colorado, at the Colorado School of Mines Classic, where they will face the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Northern State University, Fresno Pacific University and Colorado School of Mines from Sept 6-7.
The official home opener will take place Sept. 24 against UAA.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Laura Stickells at 459-7530. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMsports.