HICKORY, N.C. — The Catawba Valley Community College volleyball program has fed off its motto — "Embrace the Challenge" — all season long, but that creed will be tested more than ever when the Red Hawks start their journey at the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) DII National tournament starting on Thursday afternoon in Charleston, W.Va.
Despite some late-season injuries in key positions, CVCC head volleyball coach Shannon Hudson is proud of her team for coming together and getting back to nationals for a second-straight year and ninth time overall.
"They worked really hard together and did what they needed to do, especially in the Region and District tournaments, to pull together and get the wins that we needed to get back to nationals," Hudson said. "We had a lot of injuries to key players late in the season so we knew it was going to take everybody. That was one thing we focused on. We stayed together, worked hard, got better every day in practice and did the little things. I think they realized what they had to do, stepped up, embraced the challenge and made it together."
Setter Macy Pope is one of nine Catawba Valley sophomores who are making their second-straight appearance at nationals, and the feeling heading into nationals on Thursday is a lot different for Pope than from one year ago.
"I feel more confident because we have a lot of sophomores, and our freshmen have really stepped up," Pope said. "I'm really excited. I'd definitely say it's nice having been to Charleston before. It's a really big gym. There are a lot of people. It's really loud. It's a lot different than just playing in any ordinary gym. I think it's nice having been there before. I just can't wait to be there with my team."
For eight CVCC freshmen, including outside hitter Aasia McNeill, it will be their first experience at the nationals.
"All of the girls who went last year talk about how much fun it was and how it was a different stage," McNeill said. "It's exciting, but it's very nerve racking at the same time because there's a lot of pressure."
After being ranked inside the top five nationally for most of the season, the Red Hawks were seeded fifth for the NJCAA National tournament when the pairings came out last week.
Standing in CVCC's way of reaching the second round of the tournament is 12th-seeded Bismarck State (N.D.), which is making its first-ever national tournament appearance after finishing its season with a 29-8 record and claiming the Northwest Plains District championship.
Thursday's match up between the Red Hawks and Mystics will be the first ever between the two programs.
"They are a team we aren't very familiar with," Hudson said of Bismarck. "We don't have a lot of common opponents. It will be interesting to see how we match up against them. They are up there in points per set. That's something that we look at to kind of gauge where we are against our opponents. They are at 15.9 (points per set). Those are really strong numbers for a team. You just have to see how you are going to match up when you get to nationals. I think ball control is going to be key for us like it always is and just minimizing errors and playing a clean match. If we can do those things, I think we will be successful."
The Mystics are led offensively by a pair of outside hitters in sophomore Cara Haussler (451 kills) and freshman Becca Nitsch (398 kills) and a right side in freshman Megan Anderson (254 kills) — all of which have caught Hudson's attention.
"Both of their outside hitters are two of their strongest players for them," Hudson said. "That's who they like to give the ball to. We've been keying in on defending that in practice. They've also got a lefty right side who has performed well this year. Just knowing that is where they like to go on offense, that's what we've been working hard to defend. That's what we are keying in on."
Amber Barker, who is making her first trip to the national tournament, says playing against an unfamiliar opponent has a different feeling.
"A lot of the teams we've played against, we've played similar teams that they've played," Barker said. "We are looking at a lot of stats from (Bismarck) and trying to practice as if we are going to play that team. We're just getting prepared for our very first game and making sure we come out and play hard."
Pope believes that her team playing without two of its key players in All-Region performers Emma Clark and Meredith Patterson has only made the Red Hawks' even formidable heading into Thursday's first-round action.
"I definitely think that going through all of the injuries and tough times have brought us closer — not only on the court, but off the court," Pope said. "I think we have real true friendships off the court, which has helped us come together and play as a team. I think it's made us a lot stronger."
Will a first national championship in program history be in the cards for the Red Hawks? It's possible, but Hudson has kept her team's goals for the event much more simple.
"I just want the girls to play hard, play together and enjoy the experience," she said. "I don't think we are too focused on the wins and losses. We just want to go and give our very best effort. I think if we do that, we will get a few wins."