By MARK REIN Star-Herald
It is unfinished business for the Western Nebraska Community College volleyball team as they opened fall practices on Tuesday for the coming year.
Last year, the Cougars finished just shy of a trip to the NJCAA national tournament, finishing fourth at the regional tournament and this year, there is renewed optimism as the Cougars feature plenty of returning talent and talented incoming freshmen.
“That is what our sophomores have been saying when we stepped on the court today that it is unfinished business,” Jenna Curtis, an outside hitter from Ogallala, said. “We are trying to make it to nationals this year.”
WNCC head coach Binny Canales is excited as he welcomed 18 players to the team.
“We are getting better every practice. Everyone is adjusting to each other and learning faces and it seems very competitive,” Canales said. “We have a lot of competition for different positions and we are three deep in everything at least. We have really good strong and smart hitters. I feel it will be a good year.”
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The volleyball team had a single practice on Tuesday and a couple practices on Wednesday as Curtis is excited to be back on the court for her sophomore year.
“It feels really good and we have a lot of new players this year so getting connected with them is a whole new level,” Curtis said. “We have a few weeks of practice, but we are ready to go.”
This year, things look a little different as the Cougars feature plenty of returning starters as well as a freshman class that has a lot of potential.
“I think this season is way different from last year,” Curtis said. “We have tons of different athletes and people from all over the country and all over the world. We have all-around outside hitters and all-around middle hitters. Everyone is good and there will be a lot of competing on the court this year.”
Curtis and Canales’ optimism for a solid season stems from a team this year that looks to be three deep at the positions.
WNCC returns nine players from last year’s team and they also have one returner from two years ago that is coming back for a third year, using this COVID year. That player is Alex Hernandez, a 5-8 middle hitter from El Paso, Texas.
The other eight returners include two Nebraska Panhandle players in Curtis, the 5-10 outside hitter from Ogallala, and Jayla Brehmer, a 5-10 outside hitter from Rushville.
Also returning is NJCAA All-American Erica Fava, a 5-10 outside hitter from Placenza, Italy, along with Ale Meoni, a 5-11 right side hitter from Padova, Italy by way of Houston Texas.
Other returners include Juliana Oliveira, a 6-0 outside hitter from Ribocoe Pouto, Brazil, Angel Nahinu, a 5-11 middle hitter from Kapolei, Hawaii; Alexis Keoho, a 5-6 setter/defensive specialist from Hauula, Hawaii, and Anakaren Chavez, a 5-3 defensive specialist from Laredo, Texas. Nahinu will also be a third-year player using her COVID year to play again.
Canales said the sophomores are doing a good job of being leaders on and off the court.
“The sophomores feel pretty driven,” he said. “They are pushing everyone and being good leaders. It is really encouraging to see.”
What makes this team impressive is the newcomers on the team. The Cougars have nine new faces from Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Texas, Hawaii, Canada and overseas.
The Nebraska player is 5-4 Megan Bewley of Scottsbluff. The Colorado player is Shae Hardy, a 5-6 setter/defensive specialist from Windsor, and the Utah player is Autumn Bennett, a 6-1 middle/rightside hitter from Sandy, Utah.
The other newcomers include Emmalei Mapu, a 5-8 player from Kakuku, Hawaii; Paige Nakanelua, a 5-4 libero from Honolulu, Hawaii; Shanelle Martinez a 5-9 setter from San Antonio, Texas; Charli Blackman, a 6-1 right-side hitter from Birkdale, Auckland, New Zealand; Maya Angelova, a 6-2 middle hitter from Bulgaria; and Anna Jasinsky, a 5-4 libero from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
After a relaxing first day of practice on Tuesday and an evening where the players watched some of their classmates play for the Western Nebraska Pioneers in a playoff game, the team came back with two-a-day practices.
WNCC will have two weeks of practices before their first scrimmage on Aug. 13 when they face the South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City.
After that, the Cougars open the season for real at the Reiver Classic Aug. 19-20 where they will face Missouri State-West Plains, NJCAA defending champions Iowa Western Community College, Butler Community College, and Jefferson College.
WNCC’s first home game is slated for Wednesday, Aug. 24 when they host Eastern Wyoming College at 7 pm