MONMOUTH — Western Oregon junior Mariella Vandenkooy knew the sacrifices would be worth it.

As a high school athlete, Vandenkooy dedicated as much of her time as she could toward becoming the best volleyball player she could be.

“I still have the notebook,” she said. “The end of my sophomore year, I wrote down I wanted to play volleyball (in college). It was the reason I stayed after practice, played volleyball day-in and day-out and gave up a lot to play club volleyball.”

That paid off when she started for as a freshman.

“Oh gosh, it was amazing,” she said. “It’s such a different atmosphere.”

Now, Vandenkooy hopes to help the Wolves turn a corner.

Western Oregon swept Montana State, Billings 25-9, 25-18, 25-18 on Saturday. Vandenkooy recorded a game-high 20 kills.

“I saw our team really play together like we haven’t before,” Vandenkooy said. “We were pushing each other and staying consistent. The energy was awesome. I noticed a lot more focus on our game for sure. In other matches, we’d get down on ourselves, but (Saturday) we came together as a team.”

The victory was key for the Wolves (6-9 overall, 2-6 Great Northwest Athletic Conference).

“I’m proud of how the little stuff we’ve talked about came together,” coach Tommy Gott said. “We’re always talking about cohesion. It’s a pretty tight-knit team, and we’re working on chemistry and understanding the difference between teammates vs. friends and learning how to be a good teammate rather than just being a friend.”

Sometimes that means supporting each other during the match. Other times, that means pointing out mistakes.

“We’re becoming an older team,” Vandenkooy said. “We’re developing more and holding each other accountable more. I think it’s showing up in our play.”

Vandenkooy has played a big role in that.

“Mariella has been showing strong consistency throughout the season,” Gott said. “She’s gone out and been able to produce when we need her to.”

Now, the Wolves look to build on Saturday’s win.

WOU hosts Alaska Fairbanks Thursday at 7 p.m. and Alaska Anchorage Saturday at 7 p.m.

“We want to take that next step,” Gott said. “We talk about always wanting to climb up the ladder. We don’t want to plateau. (The Alaska teams) are playing good ball. We have to accept the challenge and win the little battles within the whole match.”

The Wolves entered the week in a three-way tie for eighth place in the GNAC standings.

It wasn’t the start they envisioned, but Vandenkooy can see brighter days ahead.

“We’ve had a rough beginning,” Vandenkooy said. “I think the pieces are finally coming together and things are starting to turn around. We’re hungry for more.”

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