Melinda Wrye-Washington says she isn’t a miracle worker. After last weekend, that’s a little harder to believe.
Wrye-Washington, Columbia College’s fourth-year volleyball coach, took a battered Cougars team and orchestrated an improbable march through the NAIA National Tournament in San Diego that nearly ended with the program earning its fourth national title since 1998. The Cougars finished 44-7 and advanced to the finals before losing to Fresno Pacific (Calif.) 3-1.
“I really don’t mind finishing up the season with six or seven losses,” Wrye-Washington said. “Doesn’t look that great on paper for me, doesn’t help my winning percentage as a coach; but that’s not why I’m here … I’m here to win when it counts.”
Wrye-Washington probably didn’t envision the Cougars taking such a bumpy road to get to those games that count when the season opened in August. At times, it seemed that everything that could go wrong for Columbia College did.
Outside hitter Doris Wefwafwa’s debut was delayed while her transfer papers were approved. Setter Nikolina Rastovac, sick with the flu, passed out on the court during a Sept. 2 loss to Truman State. Backup setter Katherine Weisenborn missed time with sore feet. Wefwafwa sat out almost a month with the flu. Outside hitter Sandra Gomez-Botero battled a sore left wrist.
Virtually the whole roster battled some sort of an ailment at one point.
The final blow came as things seemed to be finally straightening out. Middle hitter Jaime Diestelkamp tore her right anterior cruciate ligament Nov. 14 in practice. She was limited to serving duties for the rest of the season.
Still, when the Cougars prepared to head west for the NAIA National Tournament, Wrye-Washington expected the best.
“I scheduled extremely heavy the first half of the season, and I expected some losses,” Wrye-Washington said. “It’s better that you learn your weaknesses early.”
That paid off immensely in the tournament when the Cougars, unseeded going in, were stuck in the same pool as top-seeded National American (S.D.) and No. 8 seed Point Loma (Calif.), the tournament host.
After beating Southern Oregon 3-1 in the opener, Columbia College quickly fell behind 0-2 to National American. But the momentum swung in Game 3 after a scary play: outside hitter Jacqueline Makokha knocked National American setter Fernanda Vivancos to the floor with a vicious hit.
The Cougars came back to beat National American in five.
Beating the No. 1 team didn’t make the Cougars any more popular with the Point Loma crowd, though. Columbia College received a rude reception when it played the Sea Lions later that day.
“It was hostile,” Wrye-Washington said. “Their whole school filled the gym, screaming.”
The Cougars refused to wilt under the pressure, though. They swept Point Loma later that day; beat Indiana-Southeast in four to close out pool play, and swept Dickinson State (N.D.) and Biola (Calif.) to move to the championship.
Leading Fresno Pacific 27-24 in Game 1, two controversial lift violations helped turn the game around. The Cougars recovered long enough to salvage the third game, but eventually couldn’t overcome the 30 errors they committed in the match.
Even with the loss, the Cinderella run through the tournament made it hard for the Cougars to dwell much. Wrye-Washington is already looking ahead to next season; she expects to lose only three players.
Ford said she and her teammates are enjoying the team’s late-season success.
“I honestly have no explanation,” Ford said. “We came together and played with all our hearts. It’s the first time I think we actually played as a team.”