The Western Nebraska Community College volleyball team is sending three players to the next level after Brooke Kaawa, Genesis Benitez, and Joise Maldonado all committed on Thursday.
Kaawa, who came to WNCC from Hawaii, is headed to Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho. Lewis-Clark is a NAIA school.
Benitez and Maldonado, who are both from Puerto Rico, are headed to the Division I level after signing with the University of North Alabama, located in Florence, Alabama. UNA will be making the move from Division II to Division I next season.
All three said they are excited to be going on to play.
“For me it means a lot because that was my dream all the time and is going to be true,” Benitez said. “To be here was a big challenge because I came here without knowing any English.”
Maldonado said she had a dream to play Division I volleyball, and to continue playing with her teammate is a blessing.
“I wasn’t expecting that but I am happy that we are going to the same school. We are roommates here and I think it is pretty great that we get to share that experience together at the next level,” she said. “It also was a dream of mine [to play Division I volleyball] but I didn’t see it coming. It is a reality now and when I had the offer I couldn’t believe it. Here I am or here we are. I think I grew up a lot as a player during the two years but I still have to grow. They told me they are going to help me do that. I am very excited.
Kaawa said her decision to attend Lewis-Clark State was based on how she and the coach connected. Lewis-Clark hired Northwest College’s Shawn Pohlman in December and Kaawa said she is excited to be joining his program.
“I choose Lewis-Clark because it was like the best fit for me volleyball-wise and school-wise,” she said. “I love volleyball and I am excited that I get to play for another two years. I found a good place.”
Kaawa said she was looking at other schools, but the connection she felt at Lewis-Clark was just something she couldn’t turn down.
“I was looking at other schools, too, but because me and their coach, Shawn Pohlman, really connected,” she said. “When we talked on the phone, I felt like wereally had a bond.”
The three volleyball players join Kadara Marshall, who inked with Dickinson State in December, as the sophomores that will be playing next year. The three current Cougar volleyball players helped the Cougars to a 33-8 record in the fall and the program’s 19th-straight Region IX championship. Marshall is currently participating at Dickinson State with the track and field team as a triple and long jumper.
Kaawa finished her sophomore year with 430 kills, 352 digs and 53 digs. For her career, the 5-foot-9 hitter finished with 787 kills, 751 digs, and 123 blocks. Kaawa said that she improved a lot in her two years at WNCC considering she never played the backrow in high school and she was a middle hitter coming in. Kaawa was an outside hitter for the Cougars.
“Before coming here, I never used to play the back row, which was kind of hard for me,” Kaawa said. “I improved a lot coming here. I moved to an outside hitter and I played middle hitter all my life before here.”
Kaawa said these last two years have been special.
“It was memorable. These last two years have been a really big stepping stone for me,” she said. “I love the girls. I love the coaches. I love western Nebraska.”
Kaawa said it will be sad when May comes and she will be leaving.
“The friendships I have made here have been great,” she said. “I love it here. I love the people here. I love the community here. Having friends from all over the world. It was a good experience.”
Benitez was the team’s libero and finished her career as one of the top dig leaders. Benitez had a career 1,159 digs. This past season, she finished with 678 digs. Benitez ranks fifth in career digs and tied for seventh with digs in a season.
Benitez said it is going to be hard to leave Scottsbluff and WNCC in May because of all the people she met and helped her along the way, especially helping her learn the English language.
“It’s going to be hard because my friends, instructors, dorm family and coaches have helped me a lot and never, never let me alone in this hard challenge,” she said. “I just want say thanks all the people who help me in this time of my life.”
Maldonado had a strong sophomore season, finishing with 239 kills with 14 blocks. The 6-foot-2 outside hitter finished her career with 319 kills.
Maldonado said she has a ton of memories on and off the court while at WNCC.
“I am very thankful for the opportunity that I had to come here and play. It has been amazing,” she said. “We had the opportunity of going twice to nationals. These past two years, the chemistry was very different with the teams and we have wonderful memories. I loved it here.”
It is those memories that will make it hard for Maldonado to leave to head to UNA, which is closer to her home in Puerto Rico.
“It is going to be very hard to leave,” she said. “We have family here. We have dorm parents and brothers and sisters that we are going to miss. We spend most of the weekends over there at their house and we have memories. It will be very hard when May comes and we have to leave.”