GNAC crown within reach for volleyball team

An automatic birth to the NCAA Division II West Regional Championships is at stake for the Seawolf volleyball team, who’s sitting atop the GNAC standings. But the lead — and margin for error — is slim.

Four other teams are hunting the Seawolves: Western Washington, Northwest Nazarene, Seattle Pacific and Central Washington. Any missteps could open the door for one of them to claim the conference.

Collectively, the ‘Wolves are 4-2 against the squads that are still in the mix. However, they’re no longer the same team that ripped off nine consecutive conference wins.

Sophomore outside hitter Julia Mackey is now watching games from the sideline. When she suffered a knee injury in late October, UAA lost one of its biggest difference makers.

Going forward without Mackey will force the team to get more creative. There isn’t a simple plug-and-play option for replacing her massive presence on the court.

The Seawolves have shredded teams on offense this year. Within the GNAC, they’re first in service aces and second in hitting percentage, assists and kills.

Holding these numbers up without Mackey is going to take contributions from the whole unit. In the few games since she was injured, junior outsider hitter Brooke Pottle and sophomore middle blocker Caitlin McInerney have shown they can help fill the void on the outside.

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The player most impacted by the new-look ‘Wolves could be sophomore outside hitter Katelynn Zanders. Zanders is now the team’s most feared offensive player. She’s sixth in the GNAC in kills per set and second in total kills. Like Kevin Durant without Russell Westbrook, her role just ballooned.

On the other side of the ball, two middle blockers have been stuffing action at the net. Senior Jodi Huddleston and freshman Erin Braun have 106 and 72 blocks, respectively. Huddleston is one of only three GNAC players to have reached the century mark in swats.

Two other dynamos have been senior setter Siobhan Johansen and junior libero Quinn Barker. Johansen is serving up dimes with 603 total assists on the season. Barker is creating endless opportunities with her 405 digs.

The next weekend of action is crucial for the ‘Wolves because they’ll host Western Washington. The Vikings are in prime position to steal that automatic bid.

One week after that, Seattle Pacific will welcome UAA and make their own attempt at climbing the ladder. Both opponents were victims during the Green and Gold’s nine-game winning streak.

But again, the Seawolves aren’t that team anymore. With a chance at postseason play on the table, they’ll have to spike a big one on the river.

The bout against Western Washington begins 7 p.m. Thursday at the Wells Fargo Sports Complex.