She is 6 feet, plays at the front of the hardest hitting lineup in the American Midwest Conference and never forgets her teddy bear on road trips.
Columbia College’s Jaime Diestelkamp, a senior middle hitter and self-described teddy bear fanatic, has not one but two teddy bears. She has one for short trips and another that stands 2 feet tall and wears a “Cougars Volleyball” jacket that she brings on overnight trips.
“Everybody on the team makes fun of me for it,” she said.
Diestelkamp and the No. 11 Cougars (33-6, 14-0 AMC) open play in the AMC Tournament at 7 tonight against Harris-Stowe at Southwell Arena. Columbia College is playing its best as the postseason opens; the Cougars have won nine matches in a row and 13 of 14, including a sweep of the Hornets on Saturday in St. Louis.
The Cougars won both regular season matches against Harris-Stowe (0-21, 0-14). All of Columbia College’s conference wins have been sweeps.
The winner will play the William Woods-Illinois-Springfield winner Thursday, with the championship Saturday. The top two finishers in the eight-team field receive automatic bids to the NAIA Region V tournament that starts Nov. 18.
Columbia College boasts the conference’s most potent offense, leading the AMC in most major offensive categories, and Diestelkamp is a big reason the Cougars are favored to win their 11th consecutive AMC Tournament title. She ranks second on the team in total blocks (165) and hitting percentage (.344), third in aces (62) and fourth in kills (267).
Diestelkamp got those impressive numbers despite often being matched against bigger opponents.
Cougars coach Melinda Wrye-Washington, who recruited Diestelkamp and two others from Owensville High in the spring of 2000, can remember the Owensville coach pushing the other two players ahead of Diestelkamp.
When Diestelkamp arrived, it took time for her to adjust to the competitive program. She said she used to cry at practice about twice a week.
“I wasn’t used to being driven like I was here,” she said. “And I’m hard on myself anyways because I want to do everything perfect the first time and not mess up. You come here and everything’s totally different; you mess up 90 percent of the time.”
The hard work didn’t take long to pay off. Diestelkamp totaled 176 kills, 112 digs and 97 total blocks in 128 games her freshman year as the Cougars finished second at the NAIA National Tournament.
Lately, Wrye-Washington has told Diestelkamp to grab a cookie or two before she goes outside so she doesn’t blow away.
“What she doesn’t have in size, she’s learned to get in a read, a quick move off the ball,” Wrye-Washington said. “She just learns all the time.”
No matter how well she plays, though, she might never escape the nickname former teammates Endrinha Sosa and Nino Gonzalez gave her.
“They said that there’s this girl they knew in Venezuela who I reminded them of and her name was Baby,” Diestelkamp said. “When they first started saying that I was like, ‘You guys are making fun of me cause all I do is cry, you guys are calling me baby.’”
The name stuck, and everybody-teammates, fans, even her parents-calls her Baby.
Baby was a big contributor in 2001 when Columbia College went 38-0 and won the national championship.
Diestelkamp wants desperately to get back to the title game, but it hasn’t been easy. She called this the most difficult season of her career.
Injuries, illnesses and player ineligibility have ravaged the Cougars this season. From outside hitter Doris Wefwafwa’s transfer papers not being approved until a week into the season, to backup setter Kat Weisenborn’s sore feet, to practically the entire team’s month-long battle with the flu in October, it seemed as if everything that could go wrong, did.
The low point came Oct. 4 when College of St. Mary (Neb.) snapped the Cougars’ NAIA record 126-match home winning streak. Diestelkamp says she was scared to leave the locker room after the match.
“It meant more to me than it did (to) the newer people,” she said. “I had more background into it than everybody else did.”
Diestelkamp was a freshman when Columbia College had its record 102-match winning streak broken and a junior when the team’s 46-match winning streak was broken. She said losing the home winning streak hurt the most, though.
Things have improved since. Columbia College is playing better, and Wrye-Washington finally had her roster healthy for the Cougars’ sweep of Illinois-Springfield on Nov. 5.
With the relative ease the Cougars had in coasting to a championship in 2001, Diestelkamp said winning the title was hard not to take for granted. That won’t be the case this time.
“When you see people’s reactions when you tell them what you’ve accomplished, it means something totally different then when it happens,” she said. “I realize now how special it was and how much I want to do it again.”