COLUMBIA — The Columbia College volleyball team was in unfamiliar territory.
The Cougars played in only one match that went longer than three games during conference play, but here they were in a fourth game in the American Midwest Conference tournament championship.
Tensions were high with Columbia College down 9-14 in the fourth game, so Cougars junior middle hitter Nicole Murphy tried to encourage her team.
After making a kill on a ball that hung in the air in perfect position for a dominating spike, Murphy clapped loudly and gave her team a determined look. The play pulled the Cougars within four points.
"You have to play as a team," Murphy said. "And without somebody firing everybody up and without that drive, you are only going to have one person who wants to stand out."
After Murphy lifted her team, Columbia College coasted to victory with a 16-5 run to end the fourth game and the match. For the 22nd time in 23 years, the Cougars won their conference tournament, defeating Missouri Baptist 25-14, 25-17, 27-29, 25-19 on Saturday at Southwell Complex.
It was their 17th AMC tournament title in the past 18 years, and it earned them a bid to the NAIA national tournament that begins later this month.
"We have to win, it's not an option to lose," setter Paula Ferreira said. "Of course it is exciting to win, but it's something that we have to do."
Despite receiving several bad passes, Ferreira had an outstanding match with 49 assists.
"Sometimes we take for granted the kinds of balls she puts up," Cougars coach Melinda Wrye-Washington said. "You don't see other setters making these plays."
Outside hitter Vesna Trivunovic had 22 points on kills.
"It's something we've been working on for I don't know how many months, to be the champions," Trivunovic said.
Ferreira was honored as the AMC Setter and Player of the Year after the match. Trivunovic was named AMC Newcomer of the Year, and Tally Mattos was named AMC Libero of the Year. All three were named to the All-Conference first team.
Mattos, who had 13 digs, was another emotional leader during the game.
"She gets red in the face and fired up and that gives confidence to the other girls," Wrye-Washington said.
But the team isn't satisfied with just winning the conference tournament again.
"No free time. We are going to prepare as hard as we can to get ready for the team we will see at nationals," Murphy said.
The NAIA national tournament begins on Nov. 30 in Sioux City, Iowa. The Cougars (37-2) will receive a first-round bye. The national championship match will be Dec. 4.