COLUMBIA — Every Cougar player and fan at the Arena of the Southwell Complex was shocked to see No. 1 seeded Columbia College lose to No. 2 Missouri Baptist University.
Everyone except Columbia College coach Melinda Wrye-Washington, that is.
“I could tell in warm-up, I was almost — not panicked as a coach — but I knew, I was like, oh boy, here we go,” Wrye-Washington said. “It’s a sick feeling in your stomach as a coach, and the people that read the article or have been in this situation as a coach, you know the feeling, you know it’s coming. I knew it. I knew it was coming.”
In a 3-0 loss, the Cougars kept the sets close with scores of 25-23, 25-18 and 25-23. And on the brink of elimination in the third set, Columbia College held the lead for several points, but each time the Spartans took back control.
“Two more,” freshman Jordan Reid shouted after the Cougars took a 23-22 lead.
But that was the last point Columbia College would score.
“It’s heartbreaking, fourth year here, I helped put a number on that banner every year and not this year,” senior Nicole Murphy said. “It’s just like, I don’t even, it’s kind of like a loss of words. How do you describe it? What do you say?"
The last time Columbia College lost the conference championship game was 2005, also against Missouri Baptist
"I mean, we obviously didn’t show up to play, and this is what we get for it," Murphy said, "and it just is like disappointing because I have been here every year, and I have played in every single conference championship, and I have helped to put every single number up there. This year I didn’t help do that. I failed my team, and I failed myself, and I failed coach, and it’s disappointing.”
Wrye-Washington said the Cougars' problem was a lack of focus and support each for other — both season-long problems. After being ranked first in the American Midwest Conference all season, Columbia College expected it would be the one to get the automatic bid to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Tournament.
“I think we were thinking ahead, going to nationals a little bit; we jumped a step," junior Paula Ferreira said, adding that this match was crucial for whether they made the national tournament.
"I think we just maybe took for granted that we were going to win, and on the court you don’t win if you don’t play your best, so I think we just thought we were going to win the game, and we didn’t focus for that,” Ferreira said.
With red eyes and long faces, the Cougars received their conference awards, including five for academics. But not even wining Player of the Year for the second year in a row could put a smile on Ferreira’s face.
“I just didn’t even show my teeth,” Ferreira said. “My face, you can see it, whatever I’m feeling, so I’m not going to pretend, ‘Oh yeah, I’m happy that I won.’ It’s good, yeah, but it doesn’t make me feel any better because we lost the game, so it’s kind of like, if I’m winning this prize, I should’ve done something in the game to make it better and make us win.”
Murphy was the first team all-conference recipient, an award she has wanted her entire time at Columbia College. She, too, could not receive it happily after today’s performance.
After Missouri Baptist received the tournament champion plaque, the Cougars went to the locker room to talk for the next hour.
“We went around the room and everybody spoke their mind, and then we just talked about those things and how things are going to change next year,” Wrye-Washington said. “I call people out; I don’t address them as a group. I will call people out, and they know that.”
While the Columbia College team was speaking its piece, a few of the players for Missouri Baptist chanted “Happy Flight,” in reference to the St. Louis Cardinals' surprise postseason triumph.
The final rankings will be released at 1 p.m. Sunday, which will help determine which teams will get an invite to the NAIA Tournament. If the Cougars, currently ranked third, stay in the top 10, they will get an automatic invitation.
“When you put your faith in the hands of others, you never know what’s going to happen,” Wrye-Washington said.