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Central Washington’s Makala Swart, a Naches Valley graduate, is one of the top returners for the Wildcats.

Central Washington’s volleyball program has been on the rise in recent seasons and that is expected to continue that climb again this fall.

The Wildcats and rival Western Washington, which was just points away from winning the NCAA Division II title last season, share the top spot in this year’s GNAC preseason coaches poll released Thursday.

Both teams had 114 total points, with the Vikings earning seven first-place votes and Central receiving the other four.

Last season, the Wildcats finished second in the GNAC to Western, posting a 16-4 conference mark and a 23-6 record overall. The Wildcats qualified for the West Regional for the seventh consecutive season but, unlike the first six, earned a victory, beating Cal State Los Angeles, before being eliminated by WWU.

CWU returns four starters — Naches Valley graduate Makala Swart, an American Volleyball Coaches Association honorable mention All-American, West Valley grad Brdigette Webb, both outside hitters, libero Kyla Morgan and setter Gabrielle Aihara.

Alaska Anchorage was picked third, Simon Fraser fourth and Alaska (Fairbanks) fifth. Rounding out the poll, in order was Seattle Pacific, Northwest Nazarene, Concordia, Montana State Billings, Western Oregon and Saint Martin’s.

Central opens its season at the Capital Plaza Invitational on Sept. 6-7 in Topeka, Kan.

• CWU’s women’s soccer team was selected to finish fifth out of nine teams in the preseason coaches polk.

Central, which was fifth in the GNAC last season with a 5-5-2 record, received 46 points, one behind No. 4 Simon Fraser.

WWU was a unanimous choice to win the title, followed by Seattle Pacific and Concordia. After Central, Northwest Nazarene was picked sixth, followed by Western Oregon, Montana State Billings and Saint Martin’s.

Central, which returns five starters off a 5-8-4 team overall, opens its season Sept. 5 at Fresno Pacific.