It is difficult to find easy touches in Missouri Valley Conference volleyball. Not too long ago, most weekends contained at least one blowout.
Now those breathers are rare. Just look at the NCAA RPI rankings for proof. Seven MVC teams are in the top 80, led by No. 4 Northern Iowa. That compares to higher-profile conferences such as the Big 12 (eight in the top 80), Southeastern (seven) and the ACC (nine).
Those conferences boast more elite teams; the MVC is balanced with six teams ranked between No. 26 Missouri State and No. 78 Evansville. Even the bottom of the MVC is more representative than in past seasons — only No. 215 Bradley is ranked below 160.
"The skill level has improved," WSU libero Sarah Waldorf said. "Us and (Northern Iowa) and Missouri State all have had pretty successful programs. The rest of the teams in the Valley have stepped it up and seen what it takes to be great."
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WSU, No. 32 in the RPI, plays one of the Valley's most improved teams on Friday at Drake. The Bulldogs ranked No. 208 in the final RPI of 2008. Now the Bulldogs are No. 46 after starting the season with a 14-match win streak.
"The teams that have been at the bottom, including us, are getting better," Drake coach Phil McDaniel said. "The top teams are still good. It's a tough, tough conference."
In 2008, WSU led the MVC with a No. 19 RPI rank and half the conference ranked below 100, three of them below 200.
"It's exciting that this conference is finally getting up there," WSU setter Mary Elizabeth Hooper said. "It means we have to go twice as hard and be twice as focused."
The MVC is 85-28 (75.7 percent) in non-conference matches, a mark that includes winning records against teams from the Big East (5-0), SEC (2-0), Pac-10 (1-0) and Big 12 (5-4).
October baseball — Game 4 of the baseball fall series is at 3 p.m. today at Eck Stadium. Gold took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series with a 13-4 win on Tuesday.
Game 5 is at 2 p.m., Saturday as part of WSU's alumni weekend. An alumni softball game starts the day at noon, followed by an exhibition by professional softball players.
Worth noting — The women's tennis team begins play in the Missouri Valley Conference individual championships on Friday in Normal, Ill.... WSU's softball team will play Newman at 11 a.m. and Cowley College at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in scrimmages at Wilkins Stadium.