Cougars ready for national tourney

Western Nebraska Community College and Wallace State-Hanceville are beginning to become a common first-round foe when they meet in the NJCAA national tournament opener Thursday at 10 a.m. in Wests Plains, Mo.

This will be the third time in the last four years that the Cougars and Lions have faced off in the opening round. The two teams played each other in 2009 and 2010 with WNCC sweeping both matches 25-20, 25-14, 25-20 in 2009 and 20-16, 25-19, 25-14 in 2010.

Sophomore Danika Youngblood said coach Giovana Melo hasn't told the team too much about Wallace State. Youngblood, however, likes to go in not knowing much about an opponent.

"We just have to go out and compete," she said. "I actually like playing teams that we haven't seen before because we don't know what to expect and they don't know what to expect. We just have play our game."

Youngblood said their hour practice on Wednesday went well and they are ready. She said of course there will be some butterflies, but the first game is to work those nerves out.

"It went pretty good," she said. "I don't think all the nervousness got out because I know as a freshman last year I had a lot of nerves going into the first game. But to just to practice for that hour, we got to see the environment that we will be in. It is different when we face our opponents."

Both teams bring similar teams to the court. WNCC enters with a 31-match winning streak and a 37-2 record. The Cougars have lost just two matches this year, both coming in the first two weeks of the season to North Idaho College and Iowa Western Community College. Since then, the Cougars have been pretty much untouchable, only dropping a handful of games.

In fact, the Cougars have the potential to face North Idaho and Iowa Western in the quarterfinals and the semifinals if all three teams continue to win. But the tournament will not be a walk in the park. Youngblood said they are ready to play the best to become champions.

"It is always good to play the best teams and it will be challenging," she said. "I think for sure we are up to the challenge.

Wallace State enters with a 33-7 and is 9-3 in their last 12 matches, falling to Community College of Coastal Georgia, Johnson County Community College, and New Mexico Military.

The two squads feature hard-hitting lineups. The Cougars hitting rotation is powerful led by Youngblood, Kat Agson, Yoro Tovar, Priscila Mendes, Megan Johnson, Taylor VanderWerff, Lauren Knox and Allora Tanner.

The Lions are led by 6-foot-1 middle hitter Erica Baker, who is averaging 3.6 kills per game. The Lions' Kianna Delaney, a 5-10 freshman outside hitter, and Bekah Myers, 6-0 sophomore rightside hitter. Both are averaging 2.6 and 2.2 kills per set.

The two teams' setters are also leaders on the court. WNCC's Luiza Martins is among the top in the country averaging 10.8 sets a game. Wallace State's Nicole Penny, a 5-7 freshman, is averaging 8.54 sets a game. Both setters also have over 1,000 set assists for the season.

Both squads bring equal teams to the table, but Youngblood said her team remembers how they finished at last year's national tournament, falling to Western Wyoming Community College in the semi-finals before topping San Jacinto for third place. That finish is own their minds.

"Just being in the gym yesterday, I just felt that feeling I felt last year and I don't want to feel that feeling again. It is more for us sophomores for being here because we know what it takes and we know what we need to do to win it."

Overall, though, they are ready.

"We are really excited to be here and we have confidence in our team and a lot of confidence in each other. We are just going to go in and have fun, put it all out there. We know what we have to do. It is just an exciting experience to be here."

First Round Pairings

9 a.m. – No. 3 Iowa Western vs. No. 14 Temple College; No. 6 College of Central Florida vs. No. 11 Western Texas College

11 a.m. – No. 7 North Idaho College vs. No. 10 Hutchinson Community College; No. 2 Western Nebraska C.C. vs. No. 15 Wallace State-Hanceville

1 p.m. – No. 1 College of Southern Idaho vs. No. 16 Faulkner State Community College; No. 8 Hillsborough Community College vs. No. 9 Missouri State-West Plains.

3 p.m. – No. 5 Tyler Junior College vs. No. 12 Redlands Community College; No. 4 San Jacinto College vs. No. 13 Casper College

5:30 p.m. – Winner of Match 1 and 2; Winner of Match 3 and 4

7:30 p.m. – Winner of Match 5 and 6; Winner of March 7 and 8

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