The Northeast Community College volleyball team is making a habit of spending its Thanksgiving season in West Virginia.
The Hawks earned a spot in the 16-team National Junior College Athletic Association Division II tournament for the fourth-consecutive year. As a result, Northeast will once again be in Charleston, West Virginia, competing at the Charleston Civic Center against the top volleyball teams in the junior college ranks Nov. 21-23.
Northeast, which is 21-16 and seeded seventh in the tournament, will open play against No. 10 seed Grand Rapids Community College of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Raiders have a 30-6 record.
The qualifying process for Northeast began when the Hawks went 7-2 in Iowa Community College Athletic Conference matches during the regular season, which earned the team the third seed in the Region XI “Group B” tournament.
“Our region was divided into two qualifying tournaments based on conference seeding. We were grouped with the second, sixth and seventh seeds in a playoff group hosted by Northern Iowa Community College,” Northeast coach Amanda Schultze said. “This meant that we played Hawkeye Community College, then faced Northern Iowa. Top-seeded Iowa Central Community College hosted the ‘Group A’ teams that were seeded one, four, five and eight. The qualifying spot in the national tournament would go to the highest-seeded team to win its group.”
Northeast won both of its matches in Group B and after fifth-seed Kirkwood Community College upset Iowa Central, the higher-seeded Hawks had earned a trip to Charleston. Kirkwood went on to defeat Metropolitan Community College in an alternate-qualifying district competition to also grab a spot in the national tournament as the No. 9 seed, which, Schultze said, speaks to the high quality of teams in the ICCAC.
In 2016, Northeast’s first experience in the tournament ended with two losses, but the Hawks followed that with a 1-2 record the next year for an 11th-place finish. Northeast bettered that performance by finishing seventh last year.
“Last year, we won our first match in five sets against North Dakota State College of Science, lost to the No. 1 seed, Coffeyville Community College, in the second round, but we made our way into the seventh-place playoff game where we beat Lincoln Land Community College in four sets,” Schultze said. “This year the team’s goal is to finish in the top five.”
Qualifying for national competition with a 21-16 record confirms for Schultze that “we’re on the right track.”
“I have the girls set goals for the beginning of the year, and qualifying for the national tournament was one of their goals,” Schultze said. “I think after the season that we had — with a lot of hard games and a tough schedule, with six of our losses against D1 schools and the other 10 were to teams that were still in the rankings of the top 20 teams toward the end of the year — that helped us for the postseason.”
“I think it says something about the girls on our team, too, that after a tough season ... they were willing to fight to come back and earn that spot in the national tournament,” she said.
Northeast faced obstacles during the season, experiencing a lull in the middle of the season, then losing standout outside hitter Elley Beaver (241 kills, 398 digs) to injury the weekend before the postseason was about to begin.
“We had a couple bad weeks starting in the middle of the season. When we lost to NIAC, we were a team that I hadn’t seen play all season; we weren’t playing together and weren’t playing well,” Schultze said. “Then we struggled in the Central Community College tournament against some good teams, but turned it around a little bit, which opened our eyes to the fact that we can win if we set our minds to it and believe.”
“Then we lost a key starter, Elley Beaver, to injury, and I know the girls were sad about that,” she said. “But they’ve overcome that, too. Elley is still a huge part of our team; she’s an inspiration, encouraging them and telling them what to do — just not from on the floor.”
The 2019 Hawks, Schultze said, “aren’t as talkative as last year’s bunch, but they have a different ‘swag’ to them, a confidence, and they mesh well on the court,” adding that as a group, “when they set their minds on something, they can do it.”
Statistical leaders for the Hawks are Josie Sanger (774 digs), Makayla Davidson (473 set assists, 424 digs), Jamie Bonifas (787 set assists), Brianna Bauer (323 kills), Hannah Heppner (302 kills, 108 blocks), Caitlin Orton (251 kills), and Caitlin Kumm (507 digs).
“Josie has been a really good libero for us, so solid throughout the season, and it’s great that she’s a freshman,” Schultze said. “She’s a gamer, gets out there and goes after it, and works hard all the time. Caitlin Kumm has been a great defensive specialist for us on serve receive and defense in general.”
“Offensively, Hannah has really stepped it up the last few weeks. I’ve always been tough on her because she’s been one of our go-to players, but she’s really shown that recently, even in the middle with blocking,” she said. “Brianna has stepped up on the outside, too, especially with the loss of Elley since she’s had to play all the way around for us now. She and Caitlin Orton have done a nice job for us on the outside. We were back-and-forth between setters early in the year, but when we lost Elley, we felt like we needed our sophomore setter, Makayla, in there all the time as a leader because she’s a talker and know what’s going on on the court. She’s done a good job in that position.”
Heppner, a sophomore from Stanton, said she views the national tournament as similar to the Nebraska state volleyball tournament, which she and her Mustang teammates played in three times.
“It’s bringing all that energy, like from the fans — we actually have quite a few that go, parents and friends, which really helps us,” Heppner said. “This year I feel like as a team we’re more connected with each other, and hopefully that connection will bring us together and help us be successful.”
Sanger, a freshman, also feels that the Hawks have an ability to come together when the team needs it.
“We become one when we’re on the court; we read each other, and we know when we do click and when we don’t,” Sanger said. “To me, the national tournament means that we have to focus in and be the best we can be for our teammates.”
Davidson, who enjoys the fact that the Hawks “have so much personality and are very close as a team,” wants to use last year’s national tournament as experience to help the team do even better this time.
“Last year was a really cool first-time experience, but it means a lot more this year, because last year my role was limited, and this year as a sophomore and as a setter, I have to try to be more of a leader for the team,” Davidson said. “It feels much more special to end my career at nationals since I’ve played more of a part in helping the team get there.”
Among the 16 teams in the national tournament are top-seeded Parkland Community College of Illinois, which boasts a 54-2 record, along with teams that represent various win-loss records. If the Hawks win in the opening round, their second-round opponent would be the winner of the match between No. 2 seed Coffeyville Community College (29-2) and 15th-seeded Montgomery Community College (21-5).
“There’s definitely teams with fewer losses than we have, but their schedules aren’t as tough,” Schultze said. “On a given day, anybody can win.”
In the meantime, Schultze said that with the assistance of other ICCAC teams, the Hawks will begin scouting game film of the Raiders.
“Some of the teams in our conference have played them throughout the season, so they have offered to share their films,” she said. “We all want our conference to do good.”
2019 Hawks roster:
Sophomores: Caitlin Kumm, DS, Osmond; Makayla Davidson, S, Alliance; Julia Esken, MB, Wynot; Caitlin Orton, OH, Mills; Elley Beaver, RS, Columbus; Megan Wehrbein, OH, Burchard; Hannah Heppner, MB, Stanton.
Freshmen: Jessica Borg, RS, Wakefield; Jamie Bonifas, S, Blue Hill; Mattalyn Boning, OH/DS, Norfolk; Jessi Brester, OH, Howells; Carly Hirsch, MB, Norfolk; Elizabeth Christensen, OH, Stanton; Morgan Haner, DS, Sterling; Brianna Bauer, OH, O’Neill; Josie Sanger, DS, Crofton.