COLUMBIA — The crowd at the Arena at Southwell Complex was sparse, with a few stragglers left over from the Columbia College men's basketball game that had just finished. A few children played basketball, and some others helped pick up trash.
But some remained to watch another Cougar team, the volleyball team, compete for the NAIA national championship on a live stream on the video board in the arena.
Some lay on the court, others got comfortable in the stands, and others simply stood while watching their volleyball team's season end at the hands of the now four-time defending champions, No. 3-seed Fresno Pacific. The No. 4-seed Cougars lost in a sweep, 25-20, 25-18, 25-19.
The feed didn't start until near the end of the second game because the basketball game didn't end until 8:45 p.m., and the volleyball team started its match at 8:10 p.m. When the feed came on, Cougar fans were able to see the precise passing of Paula Ferreira and the powerful right arm of Vesna Trivunovic on her spikes.
But when the announcer informed the crowd that the Cougars had lost the first game and were down in the second, the fans looked around in disappointment. The Cougars were dominant in the national tournament to get to the national championship, defeating undefeated No. 1 Lee University earlier in the day in a sweep.
Cate Eckhart, a student assistant coach on the volleyball team, was in the crowd. She wasn't able to make the 406-mile drive to Sioux City, Iowa, with the team because of her end-of-semester workload.
"It's killing me that I'm not there," Eckhart said.
Her eyes were fixed on the screen on the north wall, above volleyball head coach Melinda Wrye-Washington's office, and she hung on every point. She muttered words of advice to the players she had helped reach that point, but it was for nothing. The Sunbirds dominated from start to finish.
After the Cougars dropped the final point, Bob Burchard, the director of athletics at Columbia College, initiated applause that spread throughout the whole gym.
"I think they are amazingly consistent," Burchard said after the game. "I told Melinda before they left that I had a good feeling about this year, and they had a great tournament. We are very proud. They represented us well."
The Cougars had great fan support in Iowa. The college sponsored a fan bus up to the Tyson Events Center after the Cougars won their quarterfinal match on Friday night. The bus left at 3 a.m. Saturday morning. That, combined with the watch party at Arena at Southwell Complex, made Wrye-Washington proud.
"It's nice to know that we have fan support, we are really thankful for the support," Wrye-Washington said.
Trivunovic led the Cougars with 10 kills in the championship match, but they could not stop Martina Gregusova of Fresno Pacific, who registered 23 kills on 41 attempts.
"We're disappointed that we didn't play well, but it was a great run, and I think we have great potential for next year," Wrye-Washington said. "We learned a lot this year."
The loss ended Columbia College's season with a 42-3 record. This was the fourth time in program history that the Cougars have lost the national championship game. They have won the championship three times: in 1998, 1999 and 2001. This was their first championship appearance since they fell to California Baptist in 2005.
Fresno Pacific finished the season at 35-2. It held the top spot in the NAIA rankings for the majority of the year, before it dropped matches to University of Texas-Brownsville and California Baptist in the last three weeks of the regular season.
But the Sunbirds dominated throughout the tournament, not dropping a game.