The NAIA National Tournament is nothing new for Columbia College volleyball. But it is fairly new to coach Allison Jones-Olson.
Currently in her first year coaching the No. 9-seeded Cougars, Jones-Olson was coaching Central Methodist in 2018 when she led the Eagles to their first-ever tournament appearance.
But as a tournament berth may be unprecedented success for other programs, it’s the norm for CC.
With this year marking its 26th appearance — the most of any program nationally — Columbia arrives at nationals looking to not just show up, but show out. Being the all-time winningest program in NAIA history and four-time national champions earns that kind of reputation.
But the change in programs and prestige hasn’t phased Jones-Olson as she prepares for CC’s tournament opener. To her, nationals still remains an extraordinary achievement no matter how many times a team qualifies.
“No, I think it’s still exciting to be here,” Jones-Olson said. “Most of our kids are new this year, so it’s new to them. We have our two returners (Sidney Branson and Kiersten Anderson), they’re excited to be here, also. It’s just a special, special event and we’re just excited as always to be here.”
The Cougars have a gantlet of teams to get through over the course of the next three days, with all games played at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa. In order to reach the tournament’s elimination rounds, which start Friday after the conclusion of pool play, CC must finish in the top two of its group.
Drawn into Pool H, Columbia was placed into a group featuring No. 8 Jamestown (N.D.), Westmont (Calif.) and Xavier (La.). Each of the Cougars’ opponents are comfortable nationals regulars: all have made the tournament every year since 2016, and no school has less than six all-time appearances.
Westmont is the most successful of the bunch, having 12 appearances at nationals to its credit and two third-place finishes all-time. It’ll also be the first opponent the Cougars face in pool play at 3 p.m. Tuesday.
“Westmont has a big history at nationals. They’re a good team,” Jones-Olson said. “Our next two, Xavier and Jamestown, both of them are good programs and we’re looking forward to competing against them.”
Columbia earned an automatic bid to pool play as one of the nation’s top 20 seeds, avoiding having to win a play-in game to qualify for it instead. But one disadvantage with that is a long layoff of seeing no opponents.
The Cougars haven’t played in a competitive match since losing in the American Midwest Conference Tournament semifinal to No. 4 Missouri Baptist on Nov. 15. Jones-Olson said that her squad has taken a similar approach to the match gap as they did the preseason, viewing it as if they are entering “a whole new season.”
The extra rest did do some good, though, as outside hitter Adianez Rivera has recently returned to practice. The junior from Puerto Rico has been inactive with an undisclosed lower body injury since the AMC Tournament quarterfinal against Lyon on Nov. 12. Whether Rivera returns to play this week is yet to be seen, Jones-Olson said.
“We’re ready to get back and get playing,” Jones-Olson said. “You get tired of practices, but we’re ready to go and are excited to get back onto the court.”