For the 19th straight year, the Western Nebraska Community College volleyball team can call them Region IX champions after claiming a heart-pounding five set win over Northeastern Junior College in the championship game of the Region IX South Tournament at Cougar Palace.
The Cougars, who entered the tournament as the Nu. 2 seed, played some of their best volleyball of the season in claiming the 24-26, 21-25, 25-12, 25-21, 15-9 win for the teams 19th straight championship.
WNCC, 32-6, now qualifies for the Nov. 16-18 national tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas.
WNCC coach Binny Canales was pleased with how his team played the entire match.
“I thought we played well the majority of the time,” Canales said. “In the first set they had a couple of spurts that put it out of reach. But, outside of that, I thought we played well the entire time. The last three we really turned it on. It was a fun match. The girls competed. They played to win. They didn’t wait for NJC to make a mistake. Hats off to NJC, they played amazing and it was a great match.”
More importantly, Canales said this was a great team win with the energy the team showed.
“It is important to keep on top of things,” Canales said. “The bench helped out a lot. The bench was great in calling balls in and out. They were encouraging and positive with everybody. It was a great team win.”
Genesis Benitez, who finished with 21 digs in the game while also being tabbed the Region IX South Libero of the Year, said the feeling the team is experiencing is unreal, especially since the team won the championship on her birthday.
“This is the best feel in the world. I am happy right now,” Benitez, who also was celebrating her birthday on Saturday, said. “For me, this is everything I worked hard for to get all this. When my family arrived on Thursday, it was something I cannot explain. There were many emotions at the time on Thursday. I dedicate my successes to my whole family.”
Brooke Kaawa, who finished with a triple-double of 14 kills, 17 digs, and 12 points, said this is a special moment.
“It feels good to be Region IX champs, especially since we fell to NJC twice in the regular season and then winning against them when it is most important,” Kaawa said. “We need to pat ourselves on the back.”
It was a team effort, too. Kaawa might have had a triple-double, but the team was hammering home kills left and right with NJC’s powerful hitters. The Cougars finished with a team total of 73 kills in the match with just 15 hitting errors. Sarena Bartley led the way with 20 kills, followed by Joise Maldonado with 18, Kaawa with 14, and Kaile Tuisamatatele with 11.
While the Cougars were pounding the ball down with authority, they were also putting up a mean block. The Cougars tallied seven solo blocks, two each from Syenna Masaki and Tuisamatatele. Kaawa, Bartley, and Kadara Marshall each one solo block.
The contest, however, didn’t start well for the Cougars after dropping the first two sets. The first set was a dogfight with WNCC lead 20-16 and 21-19 before NJC’a Kacey Jaeger had three points for a 23-21 lead. NJC won the first 26-24.
The second set was knotted at 19-19 before Noel Phillips had three points for a 23-19 lead. NJC won 25-21.
WNCC knew, entering the third, they needed to win the next three sets in order to avoid the if-necessary match. They started that comeback with thundering fashion in the third set. Marshall served the Cougars to a 5-0 lead and then Lauren Shaul had four points for a 12-2 lead. WNCC kept pushing, leading 16-6 and closed out the set on three Shaul points, including two aces for the 25-12 win.
The fourth set was a little closer. Both teams were knotted at 8-8 until Kirstee Trees had three points, including an ace for a 12-8 lead. WNCC pushed the lead to 18-11 on four Kaawa points and won the set on a Bartley kill to force a fifth set.
With all the momentum on the Cougars side, the Cougar players kept the energy up. WNCC led 6-3 on two Marshall points. The Cougars led 11-5 on two Shaul points. From there, WNCC’s momentum kept going to capture the win 15-9 and the regional title.
Shaul, who finished with 11 digs and seven points, said the team never quit fighting.
“No one was ready to quit. We all wanted to fight for it,” the Gering High graduate said. “We kept pushing. The energy was good the whole time.”
Shaul, however, was worried a little bit, but had faith in her team for the comeback.
“I definitely was worried after the first two sets, but then the third set we definitely fired back and got a lot of momentum built up and we carried it,” she said. “Momentum is huge in volleyball. I think once we get the momentum, it is hard to stop.”
WNCC also played strong defense. Benitez tallied 21 digs followed by Kaawa with 17, Shaul with 11, Syenna Masaki with nine, and Trees with seven.
Serving was also a strong part. The team did have six service errors in five sets, but finished with six aces. Kaawa had 12 points an ace, while Marshall had 10 points. Masaki finished with seven points and two aces, Trees six points, and Shaul seven points.
Masaki finished with 59 set assists, while Benitez had five assists.
Several Cougars earned Region IX South honors. Kaawa, Masaki, Benitez and Tuisamatatele earned All-Region honors, while Kaawa, Maldonado, Marshall, and Benitez earned all-tournament honors.
Benitez picked up the Libero of the Year honor. Other awards went to NJC players and coaches. Sara Antic earned the Freshman and Player of the Year honors, Sofija Pajevic earned the Setter of the Year honor, and head coach Jessica Squier earned Coach of the Year.
Other members of the All-Region team include Otero’s Beatriz Palmieri, Melissa Rodiquez, and Marina Kinna; McCook’s Megan Orth, Jessica Mahan, and Dylann Bulund; Northeastern’s Antic, Pajevic, Kacey Jaeger, and Bailey Schumacher; and Lamar’s Anamarija Mikovic.
All-tournament recipients include Lamar’s Mikovic, Lena Srdanov, and Samantha Smith; McCook’s Orth and Ryan Maddera; NJC’s Antic, Pajevic, Jaeger, and Noel Phillips; Otero’s Marine Kinna; and Trinidad’s Alicia Hall.