COLUMBIA — Over the past eight years Columbia College volleyball coach Melinda Wrye-Washington has coached her team to over 300 victories and three national championships. But she had something else in mind when she scheduled her team’s current three-game road trip to South Dakota. The No. 9 Cougars will play three games over the weekend against Black Hills State, defending national champion National American and No. 7 Dickinson State.
But the Cougars’ focus will not be solely on volleyball. The trip will also include a trip to Mount Rushmore prior to their game with National American on Friday.
Wrye-Washington hopes that the trip will be a learning experience for her team.
“That’s the thing about playing a sport at the college level,” Wrye-Washington said. “You should get to travel and see new places and it should be a learning experience, and that’s something I want for these girls, and it’s something I had in mind when I scheduled these games.”
While the players on the team said they are certainly looking forward to seeing the monument, the games against Dickinson State and National American will provide an excellent opportunity to improve their seeding for the NAIA National Tournament.
Since Columbia College will be hosting the tournament in November the Cougars will receive an automatic bid into the 20-team field. But wins over the weekend could put them in prime position to compete for their fourth national championship.
National American has been a powerhouse in the NAIA for the past 7 seasons, losing only 19 total matches since 2001. In that span the National American has advanced to at least the elite eight every year and have won two national championships.
The Cougars’ game with No. 5 National American will be the second meeting between the two teams this season. National American defeated the Cougars earlier this season in a fiercely competitive five-game match.
National American is led by junior All-American outside hitter Daniela Oliveria. Wrye-Washington says that Oliveria’s combination of strength and skill makes her especially dangerous.
“She has a very powerful swing and good control of the ball,” Wrye-Washington said. “So she can put the ball away from anywhere. She’s got all the skills. She plays all the way around and can be an offensive threat from the front row or the back row.”
Wrye-Washington sees many similarities between her team and National American and says that many of the players’ share similar backgrounds, which has allowed them to foster friendships through the spirit of competition.
“They’re a team a lot like us,” said Wrye-Washington. “They have a lot of Brazilian players just like us, and our girls will go up and talk to them after the game. They’ve kind of gotten to know each other and formed friendships with them.”
National American’s roster is made up almost entirely of Brazilian players with seven of their 11 players being from Brazil. Six of Columbia’s 14 players are from Brazil.
“They are all my friends,” Columbia College junior setter Luana Branco said. “I am looking forward to seeing them.”
Wrye-Washington said that the style of volleyball that the Brazilian players are used to playing often serves as their Achilles’ heel. The Mavericks are known for their high intensity and very emotional style of play, which serves them well when things are going smoothly, but when they begin to struggle there is often a snowball effect that has cost National American in the past. Wrye-Washington would prefer that her team keep its emotions under control while on the court.
“I think that’s a weakness of theirs,” Wrye-Washington said. “For them, when things go bad things get really bad, and you have to have balance on your team. You never want to get too high or too low. Finding that balance is important if we want to be successful.”
Columbia College will play Black Hills State on Thursday before taking a 30-minute bus ride to play National American and Dickinson State on Friday.