COLUMBIA - The members of the Columbia College volleyball team believe.
They believe in their coach. They believe in each other. They believe they can win the NAIA national championship.
“I think we can win it,” said junior Maria Omondi. “The thing it's not going to come natural. We have to work hard because the teams at nationals are good teams. Talent by itself is not going to cut it. Work ethic also has to come in.”
The Cougars won the American Midwest Conference tournament Saturday with a 25-18, 25-18, 25-22 win over Missouri Baptist University. Columbia College swept the tournament, winning all nine games in three matches. With the win, the No. 5-ranked Cougars earn an automatic bid into the national tournament.
According to senior Luana Branco, team chemistry has played a big role in the Cougars success this season. Only two players from last year's team returned (Branco and Omondi), and Branco sees a difference in the way the team interacts.
“Last year's team, we had a lot of problems outside court,” Branco said. “On a girl's team that can bring to inside of court. What I like about this team this year is we don’t really get mad at each other, we don’t fight, we just play the game. Everybody’s friends here. Besides, this team this year is way better.”
Getting along with one another has its advantages on the court according to Omondi.
“It’s very important because it builds that trust in the team to where I know if a free ball comes over the net, Tally’s going to get it,” Omondi said. “I know if Luana gets the ball up in the air she has the ability to get me a good ball which I can hit. Trust and cohesiveness as a team — I feel like we really have that this year.”
Head coach Melinda Wrye-Washington has now won eight conference championships and one national championship with the Cougars since 2000. Though she said she sees similarities between the championship team in 2001 and this year's squad, talent and conditioning do not mean everything at the national tournament.
“At nationals when you’re playing a high level you need a little luck to go along with it,” Wrye-Washington said. “I think that we’ve conditioned well enough, I think we have the talent levels that we need at each position, its just a matter of getting a few plays to go our way there and really bring intensity into what we’re doing.”
The AMC season awards were given out after Saturday's game. Branco was recognized as the Most Valuable Player and Setter of the Year, Tally Mattos as Libero of the Year, and Flavia Lino as Newcomer of the year.
Branco, Mattos, Lino and Omondi were all honored as first-team all-conference recipients. Omondi also earned academic all-conference honors, and Wrye-Washington was named Coach of the Year for the sixth time in her career at Columbia College.
The NAIA national tournament will begin Dec. 2 in Sioux City, Iowa.