Wenatchee Valley College volleyball coach Kelly Ketcham has known all season long that if his squad would be able to find a way to get into the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges tournament, it would have the potential to do well because of the fact that the NWAACC’s East Region — which includes Blue Mountain, which has been ranked No. 1 all season long in the coaches poll, plus Spokane and Walla Walla, two other top-five squads — has been the toughest of the conference’s four divisions.
The Knights did qualify for the postseason, winning the fourth and final playoff seed by one game. Even though none of WVC’s players have played in the NWAACC tournament before, the Knights will enter postseason play with confidence because they’re certainly not unfamiliar with participating in must-win situations. WVC had to emerge victorious in every one of the matches that it did win in the second half of East Region play to qualify for the tournament, after all.
“We’ve been under that kind of pressure before,” Ketcham said. “We’re going in battle-tested. We’re still young as a squad, but we’re playing very well together, and that’s probably our strength as a unit. I think back to (our five-set loss to Columbia Basin College on Oct. 10); we know what it’s like to get that close (to winning) and not executing at the end, and we don’t want to go there again. We also know what it’s like to win against very good teams. We believe in ourselves more than we did (earlier in the season).”
“There are points in your life when you have to step up and just play,” freshman outside hitter Danielle Norton said with a shrug. “We got used to (the pressure).”
In order to get to that point, however, the Knights (14-17 overall) had to not only learn how to play together as a team, but win together as a team.
With nine freshmen on the roster, the Knights have understandably struggled through some bouts of inconsistent play throughout the course of the season; in particular, the home loss to the Hawks, who finished in sixth place in the East Region, is one that any member of the team would probably point to and say, ‘We definitely should’ve won that one.’
However, after WVC beat Spokane in three sets on Oct. 24, its confidence increased markedly.
“We came in not really knowing what it was about to play college ball, and we weren’t confident, I don’t think, in our abilities (showing themselves) against other teams,” said Norton, who stepped up as one of the team’s top attackers after fellow freshman hitter Jordan Lautenbach was sidelined in October with a knee injury. “But once we started getting into the groove, we started winning, and we knew we could do it. Our communication got better, the whole mesh between everyone got better.
“I think (the win over Spokane) showed us what we really had, definitely the turning point in our season. (The tournament will be a) different ballgame mentally and physically, maybe. But I think we’re ready.”
The Knights will begin tournament play at 2 p.m. Thursday, taking on fifth-ranked Mount Hood, the No. 1 seed from the South Region. WVC played the Saints (29-9) on Sept. 7 at the Walla Walla Invite, losing two of three sets. But Ketcham and his players know that they are capable of beating Mount Hood, especially if the Knights can keep their mental focus and take advantage of opportunities the Saints give them.
To that end, the players have been preparing for crucial moments with a drill that Ketcham calls ‘22-all’ that focuses on execution at the end of sets.
“If a team allows us to get a five-point lead, we can’t relinquish that lead. We have to hold onto it and make it stand up for the rest of the set,” Ketcham said. “If they miss a serve or make a hitting error late in the set, we can’t immediately give them the ball back. We have to make a few tough serves in a row.”
During every match and practice this season, Ketcham has repeated an inspiring mantra —‘You can accomplish anything’ — to his players.
By making the tournament, the Knights have indeed accomplished what was until this point their top goal. Now they’re setting new ones.
“(Ketcham’s encouragement) really stuck with us,” said right-side hitter Randi Wales, one of the team’s three sophomores. “I know we’ve improved so much from the beginning of the season. It’s a success, (making) the postseason, but I know we’re not going to say, ‘Oh, we made it, it doesn’t matter if we lose.’ We’re going to go in there wanting to win. We’re going to go there to win and have fun.”