The Western Nebraska Community College volleyball team enters this season with a different mentality after the Cougars' streak of 19 straight trips to the national tournament was halted last November.
The four returning sophomores are hoping to restore the national tournament streak and are doing everything they can to bring a positive culture to the team.
Torrington's Adia Sherbeyn, one of the four returning sophomores, said this team is looking pretty good after just three days of practices.
"We are looking good this year. We are all gelling as a team, so I am excited for the season," Sherbeyn said. "I think we have a lot of talent. We have a strong front row. The back row can pass."
A big key for WNCC to start a new streak of going to nationals is chemistry and the sophomores are trying to instill that chemistry and bond with the freshmen early.
"The sophomores are trying to lead by example and have a big voice," Sherbeyn said. "The freshmen are doing great already of following us. It is good."
Leslie Mamai-Lagafuaina, the 6-foot-3 middle hitter from Aiea, Hawaii, said she realizes what needs to be done for the Cougars to bring back the regional championship and she believes this team can start a new championship streak.
"Speaking off our experience from last year, I think our focus is more chemistry," she said. "We lacked that a lot last year; we didn't bond at all and it showed on the court. This year, us sophomores are trying to build a relationship with everybody and even with our coaches so we can bond on the court and off. It will show in our playing time."
WNCC only returns four players from a year ago. Besides Sherbeyn and Mamai-Lagafuaina, the other two returners is starting libero Ana Costas, 5-1 from Gurabo, Puerto Rico, and outside hitter Gabriela Canavati, 5-6 from Laredo, Texas.
The four sophomores will be pushed, too, this season with 11 talented incoming players. Mamai-Lagafuaina said she isn't surprised of the freshmen's talent since they saw the potential the players had when they came on visits. What she likes is the depth this team will have.
"Not really surprised because we all seen them beforehand when they tried out," she said. "We knew what their potential was."
Depth will be a huge advantage to the team this year from hitters to setters to defensive specialists.
The biggest loss from a year ago was the graduation of the team's two setters in Jayme Commins and Enna Masaki. WNCC will have three players vying for playing time at setter. Besides Gillen, also vying for the setter position include 5-9 Andrea Tsvetanova of Sofia, Bulgaria, and 5-7 Olivia Transfiguracion of Kapolei, Hawaii.
The outside hitting spots will also be filled with plenty of talent. Besides returner Canavati, the other outsides include 5-10 Karen Cordero of Chula Vista, California; 5-8 Anuhea Koahi of Honolulu, Hawaii; 5-11 Luisa Beining of Munster, Germany; 5-8 Alex Hernandez of El Paso, Texas, and Gering's Schaub.
Besides Mamai-Lagafuaina and Mitchell in the middle, 5-10 La'Treva Kennedy of Bryan, Texas, should bring some spring to the middle position.
The defensive specialists include Sherbeyn, Gillen, and 5-5 Nicole Pena of Killeen, Texas.
With the make-up of the team, Mamai-Lagafuaina is excited for the season.
"I am liking the girls this year," she said. "I feel like our coaching staff, the sophomores, and the girls in general are prepared and ready to get this year started."
WNCC will open the season August 22 when they face Durham College out of Canada at McCook before continuing on to compete in the Reiver Classic in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Aug. 23 and 24 when they face Ellsworth Community College, Iowa Western Community College, Indian Hills Community College, and Jefferson College.
The first home match is slated for September 10 when they host Eastern Wyoming College. By the first home game, the team is hoping they are clicking on all cylinders and by the way they are going now, that should be an easy thing to do.
"That is very important to click as a team," Mamai-Lagafuaina said. "That is how we are going to win. If there is no chemistry on the court, there is nothing. There is a lot of us this year. I am excited. We all are excited, and we are getting there."