The Western Nebraska Community College volleyball team withstood its first test as the No. 1 team in the nation Wednesday night at Cougar Palace, but it wasn't easy as they downed Northeastern Junior College in four grueling games 25-23, 22-25, 25-19, 25-18 to remain perfect in the South Division with a 5-0 mark.
The win pushed the Cougars to 25-3 on the season. It was WNCC's 12th straight victory.
Keala Kaio-Perez, who played two games at libero and then the final two games at rightside hitter, said the team played well at times.
"We played as a team. In the beginning it wasn't as good, but as we started to slow down and not get ahead of ourselves and we started to break down," the sophomore from Hawaii said. "But we started to regroup and we came out with a win."
Kaio-Perez said the third and fourth games were crucial in the way the team played as they limited NJC's service run to one or on an occasion two or three.
"The third and fourth games were really good because he [coach Binny Canales] changed the lineup," she said. "He believed everybody could play and hit. He had to change the lineup in order for us to win as a team and that was the big reason for our win."
In fact, the Cougars weren't nervous coming into the match after learning they were number one in the country earlier on Wednesday. Kaio-Perez said the rankings is just a number, it is what they do on the court that matters.
"We weren't nervous and we knew we had a tough match," she said. "We played a lot of easy teams last week. Being number one is just a number and we have to still play our game. Over the last three weeks we haven't been playing like a number one or two team in the rankings. As we continue to play hard and push ourselves at practice, then we can be the team that coach wants us to be."
The win was definitely a team effort as a variety of players came up with big kills and digs. Kaio-Perez said it pays off when you have the depth like they have where anyone can step up. Kaio-Perez had the biggest switch, where she played libero the first two games and then a hitter the last two games.
"Switching from libero to rightside is a tough thing to accomplish," she said. "From not hitting in the back row to hitting is really hard to manage."
But it is that ability to switch things up that is becoming a strength of the team.
"We just have to work as a team," Kaio-Perez said. "We still have a lot of things to work on and practice is where it all happens."
What really on the match for the Cougars was their defense, especially in the third and fourth games. NJC's Zoey Qi was controlling the front line in the first two games as was Anais Vargas. The last two games, those two were shut down with some big defensive saves. Qi finished the match with 10 kills and Vargas 11 kills.
Andrade also tallied 40 set assists along with seven points and two aces. Rabanal finished with eight points, while Ernest, Mitchell, and Tiumalu each had two. WNCC finished with eight aces on the night. Including an ace on Ernest's match point.
The match was, however, a battle between two Region IX South heavyweights and the battle card lived up to its billing on Pawzitively Pink night for breast cancer awareness.
WNCC jumped out to a 15-6 lead in the first game and seemed in control. The Cougars led 20-13 before Allison Majerus served five points to bring the score to 20-19. NJC tied the game at 22-22 before Gerotto and Mitchell each had a kill for a 24-22 lead. WNCC won 25-23.
NJC came out in the second game on fire, jumping to a 12-6 lead after Jazmin Montes-Pedrego had five service points. NJC led as much as 17-10 and 24-17 before Rabanal had a kill and then four service points before the Plainswomen won 25-22.
NJC started strong once again in the third game, leading 5-1. WNCC came back to grab a 7-6 lead. The two teams went back and forth from there. Tied at 19-19, that was when the Cougars made a move. After a Mitchell kill, Andrade served five points for the 25-19 win.
The fourth game was all WNCC with the Cougars jumping out to a 6-1 lead and led 9-2 lead. NJC slowly came back, cutting the deficit to 22-18, but a missed serve after a WNCC timeout gave the ball to WNCC and Ernest served the final two points for the win.
WNCC will look to stay on a roll when they host the Lady Cougar Classic this weekend with four matches. The Cougars will play West Texas at 1 p.m. and Garden City Community College at 7 p.m. on Friday, before taking on McCook and Casper College on Saturday.
"Even though we win in three and four sets, we still have to push ourselves because we can be way better than what we did today," she said.