CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With play at the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) DII tournament starting on Thursday, Catawba Valley head volleyball coach Shannon Hudson used one word to sum up her team heading into the event.
"Ready. We're ready to go," she said. "You have the big (District O) championship win two weekends ago, and then we have the week of getting everything ready and practicing hard. We're ready. I think we're ready to play. The girls are excited about this opportunity."
Awaiting No. 10 seed CVCC in West Virginia is an 11 a.m. match Thursday with Region 12 champion and No. 7 seed Grand Rapids.
The Raiders finished their 2018 season with a 29-9 overall record and 15-1 mark in conference play. They defeated Muskegon College in two-straight matches to claim the District F championship after falling to the Jayhawks earlier in the conference tournament.
Grand Rapids is led offensively by sophomore outside hitter Kendra DeJonge, who has a team-high 462 kills (4.13 kills per set) and 379 digs (3.38 digs per set) on the season.
Hudson and her staff have watched film on the Raiders to get an idea of what to expect in Thursday's tournament match.
"We know what we have to do to try to defend them as best we can," she said. "They've got some good serve receive numbers on their passers. We've got a good game plan going against them. Doing our best trying to execute on our side of the net is going to be our focus. I think it should be a great game. Obviously, they are an amazing team. They are at the national tournament, but if we play like we can, I think it'll be a very competitive match. We're really evenly matched. We play two different styles of volleyball. They've got some great hitters. Their numbers look good. It should be great competition."
The last time the Red Hawks and Raiders met in the NJCAA DII tournament was five years ago with Grand Rapids coming out on top in a competitive five-set match — ending Catawba Valley's then-unbeaten 39-0 season.
Hudson said being familiar with the coaching style of Raiders head coach Chip Will — whom she coached against back in the 2013 tournament — is an advantage in Thursday's match.
"You kind of know what to expect," she said. "We saw them earlier this year and have seen some film on them from this year. We know what to expect. We've kind of prepped the girls for that. It's a big advantage for them."
Hudson also sees a huge difference in the 2013 CVCC team that lost to Grand Rapids and this year's Catawba Valley volleyball team.
"I think the dynamic is a lot different," she said. "We did have a lot of sophomore leadership on that 2013 team, which I think was nice, but that team hadn't seen the competition leading up to the tournament that we have this year. I think honestly this year's team has an advantage going in. Even though they were undefeated all year, they didn't face the same caliber of teams during the season that we have this year. I think we are better prepared to face them than even maybe our teams of the past."
Hudson believes that two of her players — setter Emilee Webber and libero Emily Williams — are going to be key for the Red Hawks to be successful on Thursday.
"We've got to have the control from our back row in order to run our offense," Hudson said. "Webber's serve has been really consistent for us all year and her leadership on the court. We're definitely going to have that. I think they'll both bring it."
Also key will be the play of the Red Hawks' middle hitters, including first-team All-Region X selections Emma Clark and Sage Harrington.
"Our middles have got to keep producing," Hudson said. "I think if they both play well and we've got that ball control we need out of the back court, we'll be competitive."
With a roster of 16 freshmen and four sophomores taking the national spotlight for the first time on Thursday, Hudson is confident that the road her players have taken so far this 2018 season has set them up for this moment.
"Most of the time they play pretty loose," she said. "I think they'll do that this weekend. You never know going into it how they are going to react or how long it's going to take them to adjust, but I think we've prepared them as best as we can. We'll just see what happens."