COLUMBIA — Erin Pavlin has spent four seasons playing volleyball for Columbia College coach Melinda Wrye-Washington. But Wrye-Washington still never knows quite what will come out of Pavlin's mouth.
"She says things at odd times that catch you off guard," Wrye-Washington said. "Her timing is just priceless. ... She's so funny."
Like the time she answered Wrye-Washington's rhetorical question in practice. Was that a good play, Pavlin?
"It was a lazy play. It was a lazy play, Coach," former teammate and current student assistant Aleah Hayes remembers Pavlin saying. "And Coach was caught off guard to where she was like, 'Good answer. And no punishment.'"
Wrye-Washington's tough practices have paid off with wins, and Saturday, the No. 13 Cougars defeated visiting Williams Baptist College 3-0 (25-15, 25-14, 25-13) for Columbia's 25th consecutive American Midwest Conference championship.
It was the last regular season game for seniors Pavlin, Carol Berger and Trinity Ojo. The win ensured a place in the play-ins for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament, as well as the number one seed and hosting rights for the AMC Tournament next week. The first game is planned for Tuesday at 7 p.m. against Lyon College.
"Every postseason, it's a new season. It's a new-season mindset," Pavlin said. "So we just need to be prepared."
If the Cougars continue to win, they'll host Thursday and Saturday. They hope to win the tournament and move up into the top 12 of the national rankings, Wrye-Washington said, which would allow them to bypass the opening round of the national tournament.
"We're peaking at the right time," Wrye-Washington said.
Ojo said that after an early season win against Georgetown College, the team "went through a period of pulling off the gas in games."
But they learned, she said, to never take winning for granted and to fight for every game.
Thanks to Wrye-Washington's leadership, the team has avoided a plateau, Pavlin said. Three away losses late in the season helped spur the team to continue to improve.
On Saturday, the Cougars won decisively, allowing Williams Baptist to score more on Columbia's errors than on Williams Baptist's own merit. Wrye-Washington said it's hard to figure out how to stay focused and not get sloppy while the Cougars are winning by wide margins.
"The conference has really gotten better over the last two or three years," Wrye-Washington said.
And it's not just the team that's improved.
Ojo has also come a long way, since the game in 2010 at nationals where her first swing sent the ball sailing high over the wall and railing at the opposite end of the court, into the seats.
"My freshman year was a train wreck in itself," she said, as she went through a "relearning" process after being away from volleyball for awhile.
And then in Saturday's match, the first play was a serve to Pavlin, who passed to setter Lydie van Deursen, who set the ball for a clean kill by Ojo. It seemed appropriate to have two of the three seniors play key roles in the opening play. (There should be four, but Brooke Simpson had to sit out the season due to injury.)
"That's a core group that's been really special," Wrye-Washington said. "I really expect something special out of them after college, so I'm really excited to watch them. But I'm really gonna miss them."