The volleyball team that has the momentum last usually comes out first.
That was the case for the Northeastern Junior College (NJC) Plainswomen Friday in their exciting five-set Region IX South win over the Western Nebraska Community College (WNCC) Lady Cougars in the Bank of Colorado Event Center. NJC had the momentum early, winning the first two sets 25-21, 25-22, but dropped games three and four, 22-25, 16-25 with WNCC knotting the match at 2-2. Things looked pretty grim for the Plainswomen early in the fifth set falling behind 3-6, but they found momentum at the right time to storm back to take a 16-14 victory to win the match.
The script was reversed Mon., Oct 21 at WNCC with the Lady Cougars winning the first two games (15-25, 18-25), just to see NJC win sets three and four by scores of 25-23, 25-14. But the Plainswomen could not complete the comeback, falling in the fifth set, 7-15. That Oct. 21 match at Cougar Palace was the first meeting of the season between the two rivals since the Nov. 2, 2018 matchup when the Plainswomen defeated Western Nebraska in Cheyenne, Wyo. in four games to win the Region IX Tournament title. That ended a string of 14 straight seasons that NJC had lost to WNCC in the championship match of the Region IX South Tournament.
On Friday WNCC entered the match ranked 18th in the nation but it was NJC that looked like the nationally-ranked squad in the early going. In the first set neither team mounted much of a lead with the score being tied nine times until the Plainswomen pulled away for a 17-13 advantage on a kill by sophomore Julia Gutierrez of Catalonia and an ace by freshman Christina Pettigrew of Killeen, Texas. With NJC holding a 24-21 lead, Gutierrez ended the set with another kill to give the Plainswomen the early 1-0 advantage.
Both teams fought to a 7-7 tie in the second set with the help of an ace by sophomore MacKenzie Wells of Fruita and a stuff by sophomore Riley Grosboll of Loveland. NJC was later able to grow the lead to 23-20 on a Pettigrew smash and sophomore outside hitter Kinley Coe knocked down a kill to end the game at 25-22, giving the Plainswomen a 2-0 lead. NJC scored the first point of the third set but that was the only lead the Plainswomen would enjoy. Western Nebraska jumped out to a 10-5 cushion before NJC scored five straight points to knot the score at 10-10.
Freshman setter Andelija Draskovic Serbia had an ace during that stretch. The score was tied one more time, 14-14, before WNCC pulled away for the 25-22 victory.
After NJC took an early 2-0 lead in the fourth set, it was all Western Nebraska as the Lady Cougars led by as many as seven points throughout the set and stretched the margin to 25-16 to tie the match at 2-2.
The Lady Cougars carried that momentum into the fifth and final set, taking a 6-3 lead before NJC finally caught fire and tied the score at 7-7 on a stuff by sophomore Ravyn Burns of Aurora. Moments later a net violation by WNCC gave the Plainswomen a 10-9 lead and both teams battled to a 12-12 deadlock when a kill by Gutierrez pushed NJC up 13-12.
The score was tied one more time at 14-14 when Coe recorded a kill and match point came on a deep hitting error by the Lady Cougars. NJC Coach Jessica Squier saw a tale of two different teams in the first four sets of the match before her squad was able to put the finishing touches on the Lady Cougars. "The girls came out focused in the first two games and I felt like everything was structured," she said. "That was a big key and I also thought our ball control was also very good. But I thought our ball control kind of fell apart in games three and four. It wasn't awful but we kept putting balls into the net and we weren't able to run the plays that we wanted to run. We got back with it in the fifth set and got the job done."
After Western Nebraska tied the match at 2-2 with the nine-point victory in the fourth set, it took a special kind of focus for the Plainswomen to regroup and win the fifth game.
"I yelled at them," Squier laughed, "and I did everything I could to try to motivate them to come back with some vengeance in set five. The girls responded well and did a good job of playing as a team in the end." NJC will be traveling to Trinidad State College and Otero Junior College Nov. 1-2 to close out the regular season.
NJC will host the Region IX Tournament Nov. 6-9 in the Bank of Colorado event Center. "I think we are starting to peak at the right time," Squier observed, "and that's what I need to see out of these girls."
On Saturday there was no rest for the weary as NJC hosted McCook, Neb. Community College and won the Region IX South match in three sets, 25-17, 25-17, 25-17. NJC lost to McCook in three sets on Oct. 5.
But on Saturday it was a whole different story and an energized NJC team to gain the sweep. Squier said there was one key difference in Saturday's sweep. "To be honest with you, I was mentally here this time," She laughed. "The match at McCook was my second or third one back from maternity leave and there were some things I could have done better as a coach prior to that match to help the team. So I take full responsibility for that loss. I talked to the girls about that, there are just some things I could have done better."
NJC improves to 19-8 overall and 5-3 in the South Sub-region. WNCC leads the South with a 7-1 mark, Otero is 6-2 and NJC 5-3.
The regular season concludes with a road trip to Trinidad State College Friday and the finale Saturday at Otero Junior College. The Plainswomen will host the Region IX Tournament Nov. 6-9. Teams from the Region IX North and South Divisions will compete in that tournament. The Plainswomen are defending Region IX champs.