The 19th-ranked Western Nebraska Community College volleyball team will begin their trek to a Region IX title on Wednesday when they open play in the regional tournament Wednesday night at Sterling, Colorado.
The Cougars, who enter the tournament with a 25-7 record, received the No. 1 seed from the South and will open play at 7 p.m. against the winner of the play-in match between Central Wyoming College and Trinidad State Junior College. That match will be played Wednesday morning at 10 a.m.
The top two teams from the regional tournament will earn a berth to the NJCAA national tournament Nov. 21-23 in Hutchinson, Kansas.
"We had some hard practices this last week and had a really good practice yesterday [Monday] and we will go light today," WNCC head coach Binny Canales said. "We should be ready. We made a couple adjustments, nothing drastic. We should be ready to go."
The Cougars are one of four teams that received a first-round bye in the tournament. Northeastern Junior College earned the No. 2 seed from the South conference. Earning first-round byes from the North include Western Wyoming Community College with the No. 1 seed and Eastern Wyoming College with the No. 2 seed.
The four play-in games set to be played Wednesday morning will pit Laramie County Community College against Lamar Community College and Otero Junior College against Northwest College at 8 a.m. followed by Central Wyoming taking on Trinidad State and McCook Community College facing Casper College at 10 a.m.
The tournament begins at 1 p.m. when No. 16 NJC faces the LCCC/Lamar winner. The 3 p.m. match has EWC taking on the Otero/Northwest winner. Western Wyoming will battle the McCook/Casper match at 5 p.m. followed by the WNCC and Central Wyoming/Trinidad winner at 7 p.m.
The semifinals will be played Thursday at 4 and 6 p.m. with the first Region IX championship match slated for Friday at 4 p.m. with the winner earning the Northwest Plains District A berth to nationals.
The losers in the from the winner's bracket will drop to the Contender's Bracket with competition Thursday through Saturday. The winner of the Contender's Bracket, with the championship slated for Saturday at 4 p.m., will be the Region IX Champion and earn the Northwest District B berth to nationals.
WNCC has played both teams this season. WNCC swept Central Wyoming back on Aug. 30 and topped Trinidad twice, beating them 3-1 at Trinidad on Sept. 27 and then 3-0 at Cougar Palace.
"We played Central early and played Trinidad here and there," Canales said. "They [Trinidad] are well coached and did a good job. Central we have film on them and kind of know what they are doing. They have a good team. We just have to prepare."
What that means once a team loses twice in bracket play, their season is finished. That puts a little bit of a pressure on a team in a regional tournament that won't be easy to win.
"It will be very tough," Canales said. "We have some good teams here. We have to prepare and be ready to go. We have to have energy. If we energy and we pass well, we are very tough to beat. If we can do those two things, we will be alright."
For the Cougars, too, they are trying to re-establish themselves at the national level is a priority. Last year, the Cougars 19-year streak at nationals came to a halt. The team knows what it will mean to get back to nationals.
"I think they are ready to go to get back to nationals," Canales said. "Some teams made some adjustments against us and were successful. We are countering those moves and we are going to see what happens and go from there. But, I think for a mental place, I think yesterday was very promising. If we continue to play like that I think we will be good."
The Cougars are also limping into the regional tournament having fallen twice in the last three games. After topping NJC in five sets on Oct. 21, the Cougars went to NJC and lost in five sets on Oct. 25. The Cougars then swept Lamar before wrapping up the regular season with a five-set loss to McCook in the team's last home match. It was the first time the McCook has beaten the Cougars since 1994.
"They had a few distractions that set them back a little bit and we couldn't refocus," Canales said. "Yesterday's practice was very promising."
NOTES: The matches will be streamed live on the NJC Volleyball Facebook Page at https://www.facebook.com/NJCVolleyball/. The Cougar matches will also be on the radio at KOZY 101.3FM.
Admission prices for the regional tournament includes tournament passes and day passes. An adult tournament pass is $40 while a senior citizen/student tournament pass is $32. Day passes for adults are $25 and seniors/students $20. Children under 6 are free.