COLUMBIA — Columbia College volleyball coach Melinda Wrye-Washington shouted to her players as they sprinted up and down the court.
“If you’re not a team player you’re not in,” she yelled. “It’s not OK to lose ballgames, not on my watch.”
The Cougars are 11-4 this season and undefeated in American Midwest Conference play. They are ranked No. 10 in the NAIA Top 25 Poll and haven’t lost to a team ranked lower than No. 14. But despite their perceived success, Wrye-Washington is not pleased with the way her team has been playing, and her frustration has started to show during practice.
After a 3-0 loss to Truman State on Saturday, and in response to what she says is a team-wide lack of mental toughness, Wrye-Washington made the decision to focus on conditioning drills during practice this week in hopes of sharpening her team’s focus.
Since then, practices have resembled a boot camp, and Wrye-Washington, a drill sergeant. Players have performed lane slides, wind sprints and lunges until many of them have turned fire engine red in the face, all while receiving some not so comforting words of encouragement from Wrye-Washington.
Many of Columbia College’s victories this season have come against lesser opponents such as Harris-Stowe and Williams Baptist. When the Cougars have faced opponents of equal or greater skill level, such as Truman State and Lindenwood, the team has struggled to maintain a consistent level of play. Eliminating that inconsistency will be essential if the Cougars are to achieve their ultimate goal — winning the national championship.
“It’s a roller coaster right now,” Wrye-Washington said. “And you want to play at a consistent level all the time. Right now we’re up, we’re down, we’re up, we’re down, and the problem with that is that you learn bad habits, and we need to get away from that and learn consistency.”
Many of the team’s problems seem to come from an abundance of talent. The Cougars have struggled to mesh their talents into a cohesive unit.
“I think we’re a top five team when it’s all said and done, barring injury,” Wrye-Washington said. “But we’re not playing together right now. Anytime you have as much talent as we do, and everyone’s pulling away from each other, it creates problems. Everyone’s trying to play their own style of game, and in a situation when the game is tight it almost turns into a panic which is what happened (against Lindenwood). Everybody was just all over the place.”
The lack of chemistry was evident in an early season win over William Woods. Cougars defenders were repeatedly caught out of position, but still made plays on several balls, and at one point even played a ball off one of the lights at the Southwell Complex before killing it for a point.
“We were still able on half of those probably to make a play,” Wrye-Washington said. “The crowd likes it, but it’s annoying for me to see them whip it behind their back and get it back in play and make it over and think that that’s OK. It’s nice that we’re talented enough to be able to do that, but at the same time, it’s annoying to know that they’re out of position.”
Someone needs to take on a leadership role for the Cougars to develop better team chemistry. Columbia College returned only one senior from last year’s team, Juliana Quadrado, and she has been out with a sore back. Sophomore middlehitter Maria Omondi is one of the few players Wrye-Washington says has shown leadership and is also a perfect example of the inconsistencies the Cougars have been trying to overcome. After beginning the season as a starter, Omondi struggled in several early season games before being benched for a game against Harris-Stowe. Omondi’s playing time has been minimal since then, but she has responded to her coach’s challenges.
“She wants to play. She’s not happy on the bench and she wants off the bench,” Wrye-Washington said. “She’s the one cheering on the bench. She wants to win the ballgame. She’s not the one laughing when someone makes a mistake. She’s been taking ownership, and that’s what we need.”
Omondi has stayed positive and frequently finishes first during many of the team’s conditioning drills. She says this week’s focus on conditioning is a necessary evil, because the Cougars need to improve their weaknesses.
“As much as it’s hard, and sometimes we don’t always like running at the end of the day, when you think of it, you actually do like it because I think it makes us better,” Omondi said. “We can’t achieve the goals we’ve set as a team without preparing ourselves physically and mentally.”
Wrye-Washington says her team has a long way to go to reach the level of mental toughness needed to compete for a national championship. But despite her frustrations, she has seen improvements.
“I don’t want to sound too negative, because we’re getting better every day,” Wrye-Washington said. “I think we’re a legitimate top-three or top-four team in the country, which any time you’re in the top five it gives you a real shot at the national championship. We’ve been in this boat before, but in order to actually get through and win that and really get on a roll at the end of the season in mid-October to late October we’re gonna have to conquer this mental toughness thing.”