COLUMBIA — Constantly shouting over a chorus of "mines," Columbia College volleyball coach Melinda Wrye-Washington doles out criticism and organizes the chaos on the court.
Her players' responses can be heard echoing through the arena. The sound of bodies hitting the floor adds to the noise as they throw themselves onto the court, chasing after the ball.
The Cougars are hungry for a championship.
After ending the 2011 season with a 39-4 record and a third-place finish in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics National Tournament, they're willing to do whatever it takes to bring home a national title in 2012.
Including 5:30 a.m. practices.
In preparation for their season, the Cougars held early morning practices for the first week of classes.
"Waking up at 4:30 a.m., going to practice, and then straight to class is exhausting," said Paula Ferreira, the Cougars senior setter and three time All-American.
She said the practices, while hard, forced the team to focus and brought them closer together on the court.
Wrye-Washington is no stranger to hard work. In her 13 seasons at Columbia College, she has a combined record of 475-59, a .896 winning percentage. She's confident that this year's team can make a run for the national title.
Preseason rankings put the Cougars at No. 3 along with Lee University.
"There's always added pressure," said Wrye-Washington when asked if the ranking put any additional stress on the team. "Added pressure is a good thing."
The high preseason ranking isn't the only factor contributing to the team's stress level. This year, the Cougars have nine new players. With seven returning, seven junior college transfers, and two true freshman on the squad, the 16-player roster will be the largest it has been in recent years.
Because she knew she was going to lose the majority of her core players, Wrye-Washington looked to the junior college circuit for replacements in order to ease the transition process.
One recruit is co-captain Elena Berroteran, who transferred from Cowley College to complete her collegiate volleyball career as a Cougar. She's a two-time Junior College Athletic Association All-American.
"It's the hardest I've ever recruited at junior colleges," Wrye-Washington said. "The players coming in from those schools have already played and have experience."
Ferreira said it's made for a different preseason. Despite having experience, lots of time still has to be spent teaching the new players team routines and rules. Because there are more players, everyone has to work harder to earn a spot on the court.
"There are more people on the team, but the number of players on the court hasn't changed," Ferreira said. "The competition is tough."
So far, the team has responded well to the changes. In its two preseason tournament appearances, Columbia College only lost one set and won all of its matches against the opposing NCAA Division II teams.
The Cougars hope they can continue that winning streak all the way through the 2012 season.
"We've been almost there," Ferreira said. "Every year we lose one or two games that we shouldn't have. This year we hope to avoid that."
The Cougars will host the Columbia College Quality Inn Classic this weekend at the Arena of Southwell Complex. Columbia College's first match will be at 3 p.m. Friday against Grace College of Winona Lake, Ind.