COLUMBIA — If you're a Columbia College volleyball fan, you've heard the name Paula Ferreira more than a few times.
It might be because she is one of the most formidable players to ever set foot on the court for the Cougars since the team was formed in 1983. Ferreira became the first NAIA player to win National Player of the Week awards twice in one season, two seasons in a row. The senior setter also holds Columbia College's record for most career assists with 5,985.
It might also be because this year with her help Columbia College has had one of its most successful seasons of the last decade. The Cougars are 37-1 and ranked No. 3 in the nation in the NAIA.
For Ferreira, volleyball is something that runs in the family. Her mother played in college in her family's home country of Brazil, as did five of her seven uncles. Her older sister Fernanda won a gold medal with the Brazilian volleyball team during the 2012 London Olympics.
When asked if her dreams include following in her sister's footsteps and playing Olympic volleyball, Ferreira laughed.
"No, I want that for her," she said. "That’s fine. One Olympian, one gold Olympic medal for my family — we’re good."
Her decision to come to Columbia College might have had a lot to do with volleyball and the scholarship it presented, but another big reason she came to the United States was the quality of education.
When Columbia College offered her an opportunity to play volleyball and earn a degree in the United States, she couldn't refuse. However, keeping up with academics and athletics hasn't always been easy.
"I have to admit that I wasn't a good student in high school," Ferreira said candidly. "But when I came here, I said, 'I have to try and do the best I can.' Sometimes it's hard to keep up with volleyball and school at the same time, but it happens that I was able to do both."
Columbia College coach Melinda Wrye-Washington spoke highly of Ferreira's work ethic.
She said that Ferreira has done a fantastic job balancing her responsibilities — all the while becoming one of the best setters the program has ever seen.
"She came here with a goal, and her work ethic has been phenomenal both on and off the court," Wrye-Washington said. "Managing her time and being a good role model and example for the rest of the team is the biggest thing she’s done. Everything she’s done has just been great."
It's undeniable that her efforts on and off the court have allowed the Cougars to excel this season. The team has earned a bye for the first round of the NAIA national tournament this week in Sioux City, Iowa.
The Cougars are set to begin pool play at 1 p.m. Tuesday against Carroll College. They will take on Madonna University at 1 p.m. Wednesday and then wrap up pool play at 3:15 Thursday against Oklahoma Baptist.
Following pool play, the top two teams from each pool will advance to Friday's bracket play. Semifinals and the championship match will take place Saturday.
Columbia College is hoping to be the last team left standing — a goal it has reached three times in the past but hasn't been able to match since 2001. The Cougars said they think they have all the necessary tools to make it happen. One of which is Ferreira.