COLUMBIA - The Columbia College volleyball program has seen its share of success. In the past seven seasons, they have won the NAIA national championship, been the runner-up twice, and until last season, had not finished lower than fifth in the NAIA tournament.
Last season, the team finished 14-0 in American Midwest Conference play, capturing the conference title while going 30-10 overall. But finishing ninth at last year's NAIA tournament did not sit well with Cougars coach Melinda Wyre-Washington, which is one reason why only two players from last year's team are returning this season.
"We did have a couple of surprises over the summer, but for the most part we cleaned house after last season," Washington said. "I was not pleased at all with our finish. I mean it wasn't too bad, but I wasn't pleased with our work ethic in practice, and I wasn't pleased with the intensity level that a lot of girls had, so we cleaned house."
This year's Cougars team returns junior Maria Omondi and senior Luana Branco and features seven freshman and three transfer students. Six players on the team are from Brazil, one is from Kenya, and the remaining five are from Missouri.
"I think as a team we have to do a little bonding this week," Washington said. "We have a lot of new players and we kind of need to get into a groove on the court."
Washington said the two players she has coming back should put their focus elsewhere, though.
"Their role is to teach the girls that this is Columbia College, it's never OK to lose, and you should never settle with that," Washington said.
Branco, who is from Sao Paulo, Brazil, said she knows it might take time for the team to bond.
"The team is very different this year, so we're just trying to get along together," she said. "There's a lot of people from different places. We're looking good, though."
Juniors Flavia Lino and Juliana da Silva are transfers that Washington said excite her. Lino played for the University of Kansas, and da Silva came from Midlands Community College, and both, like Branco, are natives of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Washington says both players bring a high level of physicality, but their personalities on the court could also help the team. She described them as stable, never getting too excited or too down.
"That's a really soothing, settling factor that will blend well with the girls that are really intense. It's a good mix," Washington said.
Columbia College, which was No. 6 in the NAIA preseason rankings, hosts the Best Western Classic this weekend at Southwell Complex. Washington says the Cougars, who were third at last season's tournament, should be challenged by Georgetown (Ky.) College and Bellevue (Neb.) University. The Cougars say they are more familiar the other two teams in the tournament, Lindenwood University and Missouri Baptist University, because they are from the St. Louis area.
Columbia College has hosted the tournament since it began, which lets the Cougars start the season at home.
"I actually think it's easier sometimes to play on the road and get that bonding experience because you're in the hotel together, you eat every meal together, and the girls are basically forced to be together," Washington said.
"I think a home opener is actually pretty difficult in terms of distractions. All their friends are going to be there, their families are going to be there, so it's actually a little bit easier to open up on the road."
The Cougars play Georgetown at 3 p.m. today and face Missouri Baptist at 7 p.m. Saturday's matches include Bellevue at 1 p.m. and Lindenwood at 5 p.m.