COLUMBIA —After Thursday night's victory over Freed-Hardeman, junior Paula Rosa said that the Columbia College volleyball team would beat Park University in three sets to clinch the American Midwest Conference Championship.
Coach Melinda Wrye-Washington was skeptical.
Park, which tied Columbia College as the AMC regular season champions, sat one point ahead of the Cougars in the NAIA rankings. Park had lost only four matches compared with Columbia College's nine. But at Saturday's match, those factors did not matter.
"Yesterday coach really talked to us about winning the championship and going to nationals, having so much to gain, instead of losing the match and maybe going to nationals," Rosa said. "We knew what we had to do and everyone wanted to win really bad. We saw that result on the court."
The result: Columbia College dominated Park, winning, as Rosa said it would, in three sets, 25-16, 25-17, 25-19.
Columbia College will compete in the NAIA National Tournament with opening round play beginning Nov. 23 and pool play beginning Dec. 3 in Sioux City, Iowa. Opponents and locations of the opening round will be announced Monday due to the dependance on national rankings.
In previous seasons, the location of the opening round went to the team with the higher seed. Columbia College's 12th-place ranking holds the possibility of hosting an opening-round match.
Senior Trinity Ojo said that the intensity of play from the start propelled her team to the victory.
"It was important to jump on them from the beginning because this is a very crucial game," Ojo said. "This is a championship, and if you let up, then you get in a hole and you could lose the game from start to finish. ... No matter what they did on the other side, we worked for it on ours."
Working for the victory did come with some errors. The Cougars ended the match with 13 service errors, something Wrye-Washington said is "uncharacteristic."
"We wanted to serve aggressively, but set two kind of put us in the dumps as far as our stats for serving," Wrye-Washington said. "If we could have eliminated a few more of those serving mistakes at that time we would have carried more momentum into Set Three."
Early in the final set, two Park setters, juniors Juliana Barros and Kat Partridge, collided after diving for an errant pass, leaving Barros motionless on the floor.
After several minutes, Barros stood on her own and walked off the floor unassisted. Barros did not re-enter the game.
With the injury, Park made some major rotational changes throwing off Columbia College.
"We were prepared for the first two sets," Wrye-Washington said. "They used two different lineups there, but we had scouted both of those lineups. (With the injury) we had to adjust back. It took us three or four points to adjust back to what was going on and what was about to happen next and thinking ahead."
Park hung close to the Cougars for much of the third set, but a 10-5 run put Columbia College on top. Due to the teams tying as conference champions, both teams advance to the NAIA National Tournament.
Wrye-Washington has taken her team to the tournament all 14 seasons she has been with the program. Ojo, who will compete in her final national tournament, attributes that success of the team's season to its unity.
"I'm excited to get there and play at a level where I can really help my team and make a difference," Ojo said. "We are so ready to go. We have work to do. ...But we have come together so much from the first day that we all met each other that I am really excited to go with this team."
Wrye-Washington said that discipline and her players' ability to rise to her persistent expectations got them to this point.
"I like to take them right to the edge and make them better players and people," Wrye-Washington said. "I challenge them, and they challenge themselves, and they have responded every time I have challenged them. They have really come to the occasion, and I am proud of them."
Following the match, the AMC announced its postseason awards for performance throughout the season. Ojo, Rosa and sophomore Lydie van Deursen were named to the AMC All-Conference first team. Junior Sarah Schwentker was named to the second team. Seniors Carol Berger and Erin Pavlin earned honorable mention. Van Deursen was also named conference Newcomer of the Year. Wrye-Washington was named AMC Coach of the Year for the 10th time.