Seniors spark WSU volleyball

Summer school certainly paid off for Washington State volleyball team.

Not only did the Cougars attend classes, but they also spent valuable hours together on the court and participated in a rigorous strength and conditioning program, all in an effort to master the intricate system of second-year coach Andrew Palileo.

The offseason regimen's payoff was evident last weekend when WSU defeated No. 18 Arizona in three sets and came from behind to defeat Arizona State in five. The Cougars improved to 14-1 overall and 3-1 in conference play, which equals their total Pac-10 victories from a year ago.

And with a pair of victories over ranked opponents, WSU has clawed its way into the Top 25, at No. 25, for the first time since 2003, and up to second place in the conference standings. That's nine spots above where the Cougars were predicted to finish, according to the conference's preseason poll.

The team's improvement is due in large part to the example set by the team's four seniors -- Jackie Albright, Renee Bordelon, Kelly Hyder and Cassie Robbins -- who were willing to do virtually anything and sacrifice almost everything in an effort to finish their careers on a winning note. Thanks to their collective efforts, WSU appears to be well on its way to making one of the most dramatic turnarounds in Pac-10 history.

That turnaround actually began during the final two weeks of the 2008 campaign, when Washington State won three of its final four matches. The key to that modest taste of success was Bordelon.

"It took the players a while to grasp our system, and Renee turned that around," Palileo said. "When we won three out of four at the end of last season, that really gave us momentum going into the spring season. We carried that momentum into the spring, the summer and recruiting. Now we're going in the right direction."

Bordelon, who played two seasons at North Idaho College in her hometown of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, was a late addition to Palileo's first recruiting class. She had almost given up on her career when she contracted mononucleosis after her sophomore season, so the WSU coaches didn't know about her until she sent video clips during the spring at the urging of some other coaches who saw her play in a spring tournament.

"I was at the right place at the right time," said Bordelon, who had never played setter until her freshman year of college. "I sent in a tape; he watched it and called me the next day. That was about two months before the 2008 season started. They took a chance on me as much as I took a chance on coming to Washington State. I definitely had my work cut out for me."

When Palileo took control of the program, he immediately realized he needed a setter who was capable of running his system. Bordelon was the player he needed.

"I needed more experience, and trying to achieve a short-term gain with long-term planning, I thought Renee could do the job," Palileo said. "Renee did a good job not only setting the expectations for her teammates, but she really set high expectations for herself."

Albright, an outside hitter, and Robbins, a middle blocker, were the beneficiaries of the addition of Bordelon and the Palileo's system. By incorporating the middle blockers and right side hitters as primary weapons in the attack, the outside hitters did not have to go up against double blocks on a consistent basis. Even though they earned their spot in the starting lineup, Albright and Robbins were asked to make adjustments to their own skills.

"We did a lot of different things -- arm swing changes, footwork changes, eye recognition changes, understanding spacing -- from what they did in the past," Palileo said. "The system allows them to be more athletic and allows them a little more creativity. And they can hit against one-on-one blocking most of the time."

Bordelon has demonstrated the ability to take advantage of the new system and its many options. The Cougars currently are second in kills per set in the Pac-10, averaging 14.60, and fourth with a .270 team hitting percentage. And while there are no Washington State players among the kill leaders, Bordelon is second in assists, averaging 11.87 per set.

"I have five really good hitters," Bordelon said. "My goal is to get everyone into double-digit kills. There are so many different sets, it's really knowing which one to run at the right time. Going into this [past] weekend, we were the only Pac-10 team with five hitters who had more than 100 kills. My main goal is to keep the offense balanced, which keeps the other team on its heels."

The other key to Washington State's success is defense, and the Cougars lead the conference with an average of 16.21 digs per set.

One of the reasons the Cougars are so good in the back row is that they have two liberos on the floor during half the rotations. Hyder, who already owns the school record for career digs, moved to defensive specialist to get freshman Oceana Bush on the court.

"If that's was what the team needed, then I was willing to do it," Hyder said. "No complaints. Obviously it's a different role and a little less time on the court, but I still get to go in and do what I love to do. As long as my team is benefiting from that change, then I have no complaints."

It's obvious that move paid off because both Bush and Hyder rank among the top 10 in digs per set. Bush, who set the school record with 39 during last week's five-set victory over Arizona State, is second at 4.85, while Hyder is ninth, averaging 3.34.

"Kelly did a great job of accepting her position now," Palileo said. "She's had some nicks and bruises over the years having played that position. Physically, she can't do what she used to do. The other part of that is she really has a lot of confidence in Oceana to do her job, which allows Kelly to do what we want her to do."

The Cougars began a season with 12 consecutive victories for the first time since the 1997 team was 16-0 and advanced to the Sweet 16, but it was the Sept. 5 three-set win over then-No. 17 Utah that really gave the team confidence.

"We knew we got a lot better during the summer," Albright said. "We just didn't know how much better. We were really anxious to start preseason because we wanted to measure how much better we got. Did we get a little better, or did we get a lot better? Beating Utah in three really helped us measure ourselves. Not only can we play with ranked teams, we can beat them now."

That point was magnified last weekend when Washington State defeated then-No. 18 Arizona for its first victory over a ranked Pac-10 opponent since the Cougars defeated No. 6 USC on Nov. 27, 2004.

"The girls are flying high and have some confidence," Palileo said. "They haven't won a lot during the last four years, especially the seniors, so these wins that we're getting early in the season, especially in our nonconference matches, have really helped us come along in the Pac-10 season."

WSU faces its biggest challenge of the season this weekend when the Cougars travel to the Bay Area for matches at Stanford and Cal. A victory over either team would prove to everyone outside Pullman that Washington State is back.

"I thought it would take a year and a half to two years to get the system in place, but the players really dedicated themselves during the spring and last summer to making the commitment to turning the program around," Palileo said. "Especially the four seniors who wanted to finish their careers in a good place. I give them a lot of credit for accepting the system and accepting the different roles that they have this year."

Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.