For the 17th time in 28 seasons, the Missouri State University-West Plains (MSU-WP) Grizzly Volleyball team is the NJCAA Region 16 Champion.
The Grizzlies, 15-5, defeated the Mineral Area College (MAC) Cardinals 3-1 in the NJCAA Region 16 Championship Saturday afternoon at Jefferson College in Hillsboro. The final scores were 25-27, 25-17, 25-23, 27-25.
“It felt really good,” Grizzly Volleyball Head Coach Paula Wiedemann said of the win. “It’s hard to beat a really good team four times. MAC is physical. They can play defense, put a ball down, make you play through long points, and you can’t let that bother you. You have to keep playing and fighting through points.
“We played really well. We had production offensively from all over,” she added. “This team has come so far and learned to respect the things that matter to make them a better team, and they just keep doing good things with it.”
The Grizzlies, she said, displayed a grit and tenacity that helped them overcome the disappointment of dropping the first set and led them to winning the next three.
“A month and a half ago, this team would have struggled to get past a first set loss like that. But now we’re coming out and fighting in a way that makes us believe in each other and play for each other,” Wiedemann said.
Once again, the game’s third set was a big moment in the contest.
“When we won that third set, it put the pressure on them,” Wiedemann said. “Even though MAC was up late in that set, we just kept fighting knowing it was a pivotal set in the game.”
To win games like this, Wiedemann said, it takes a total team effort. “All we care about is being good together, and that’s when you have the ability to do good things during tough moments. It’s all about team,” the coach said.
Sophomore outside hitter Maju Loureiro led the Grizzlies in kills with 17, but right on her heels was freshman outside hitter Imani Nicholson with 15.
Sophomore setter Julieta Campana led the team in assists with 27. Freshman setter Ashton Wildermuth wasn’t far behind with 25 assists.
Loureiro, Nicholson and freshman libero Lauren Weber set up the Grizzlies’ successful offensive attack, Wiedemann said. All three recorded passing ratings that were above 2.40.
“Imani, Maju and Lauren were on point with their passing, and we were able to run our offense so well because of it,” Wiedemann said.
“Maju’s presence on the floor has grown a lot since her freshman year,” the coach added. “It’s been cool to watch her because she’s matured so much as a player. Every game she gets in there and makes plays. She’s taken it to another level. She has become the teammate everyone wants to follow.”
Defensively, sophomore middle blocker Nayla Watkins led the team at the net with three blocks, and on the back row, Weber led the charge with 23 digs. From the service line, Nicholson recorded a team leading three aces.
“Looking at the stats, we had good things happening everywhere. The belief they have in each other and the trust they’ve built is a big reason we stay in tough games now compared to earlier in the season. We’ve learned to fight together, to trust each other and to play for each other. That leads to playing fearlessly,” Wiedemann said.
Following Saturday’s championship, region officials announced the All-Region 16 team. First team honorees from the Grizzlies included Loureiro, Weber and freshman middle blocker Manuela Bibinbe. Nicholson and Watkins were named to the second team.
Wiedemann also was named Region 16 Coach of the Year. This is her eighth coach of the year honor.
The Grizzlies will now look to the NJCAA Midwest District B playoffs Friday on the campus of Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa. They will face Wabash Valley Community College from Mount Carmel, Illinois, at 11 a.m. in the first game of the day.
The winner will face the winner of the 1 p.m. playoff game between Indian Hills and Kaskaskia College in Centralia, Illinois, in the Midwest District B championship game at 5 p.m.
The winner of the championship game will earn an automatic bid to the NJCAA Division I Women’s National Volleyball Championship Tournament April 15-17 in West Plains.
“We have a lot more in front of us,” Wiedemann said. “Our goal is to win the district and make it to the national tournament. It’s going to be a fight, so we have to be ready to come out swinging and stay the course as long as it takes.”
For more information about the Grizzly Volleyball program, visit www.msuwpgrizzlies.com.