CASPER, Wyo. – Region IX Champs.

               Those words are the sweetest thing that the Western Nebraska Community College volleyball team can hear or read and for the returners from last year, those words are even more cherished.

              A year ago, the Cougars finished fourth at regionals. The sophomores remembered that and it was unfinished business this season and how sweet it is that the 4th-ranked Cougars captured the Region IX title in four sets over the 5th-ranked Central Wyoming College 25-20, 22-25, 25-23, 25-18 in one of the best performances the Cougars put together this season.

               “For us sophomores, we knew this game was one of the most important games we were going to play this year,” sophomore Jenna Curtis said. “We also knew that we didn’t want to end like we did last year. This has been our goal all year long and us sophomores worked so hard for this championship.”

            Curtis said this win was something to remember as the Cougars hit .219 for the game and had three players with double digit kills. Curtis and Erica Fava each had 12 kills while Ale Meoni tallied 13 and Alex Hernandez had eight. Emmalei Mapu tallied six.

            “Being the Region IX champs was a feeling of a dream,” Curtis, the Ogallala graduate, said. “We have been visualizing this dream for a very long time now and for it to come true feels like a dream.”

            When the Cougar players wake up Saturday morning that dream will stay with them for quite a while and not fade away. The win was definitely something that Curtis said the team can be proud of.

            “We played so well tonight,” she said. “We knew that we would end up playing Central Wyoming for the championship so we really prepared for this by scouting and coming together as a team to execute our plan.

            “Before the game today, we really talked about how mental this game is. We know that Central is fifth in the nation and they are a good team but so are we so we wanted control of the momentum and really that was our main focus tonight. All the energy was on our side.”

               The first set was a battle between the two Top Five ranked teams. Central Wyoming took an 11-7 lead and looked like they were taking control of the opening set. That was another thing as Shanelle Martinez served two points and then Curtis had three points including an ace to put the Cougars up 14-12.

               Central Wyoming came back and tied the set at 14-14, but AK Chavez served a couple points including an ace for a 17-14 lead. Central Wyoming never got within a single point again as Chavez finished off the first set with two points including the set-winning kill from Meoni.

               WNCC continued that momentum in the second set as Martinez served five straight points for a 5-0 lead. The Cougars had a commanding 11-4 lead after a setter-dump kill by Martinez and led 13-8 on a Curtis kill.

               Central Wyoming came back as they scored the next seven points to take a 15-13 lead. WNCC retook the lead at 18-17 on a Meoni kill and later tied the set at 19 and later 20. Central Wyoming took a 22-20 lead and won the second set 25-22.

               The third set was one where the Cougars showed how bad they wanted the win. Central led 3-0 only to watch WNCC come storming back to grab an 8-5 lead on four Meoni points. The Cougars went up 16-10 on two Chavez points and led 21-15 late.

               The Rustlers fought back, cutting the lead to 21-19. WNCC pushed the lead to 24-21 and needed just one point for the set win, but Central Wyoming sliced the lead to 24-23 on an ace serve. WNCC stayed in control and Fava finished off the second set with a kill and the 25-23 win.

               The fourth set was back and forth at the start with Central leading 6-4. WNCC got a kill from Hernandez and then Hernandez had three points for an 8-6 lead. WNCC kept the margin at three points until Central sliced it to a single point three times late, the final time at 18-17. Curtis stopped the run with a kill and then served a point for a 20-17 lead. 

               Central Wyoming stopped the run with a sideout, but the Rustlers’ service run was short-lived as Mapu hammered down a kill sending Chavez to the service line. The sophomore libero finished off the set with four straight points for the 25-18 win and sending the Cougar players dog-piling on the court in celebration of the Region IX Title.

               Besides the 52 total kills the Cougars had, the defense was huge in how they played finishing with 62 team digs. Martinez tallied 16 digs while also dishing off 41 assists. Chavez had 12 digs while Fava had 10, Curtis with nine, and Meoni with seven.

Serving was OK even though the Cougars had eight service errors, but they also had four aces and held Central Wyoming’s long service runs in check. 

Martinez finished with eight points with two aces while Curtis and Chavez each had six points, and Hernandez and Meoni each had four points.

The tournament still continues Saturday as one more Region IX team will earn the Northwest Plains regional title and a berth into nationals. That action begins at 11 a.m. when Northeastern Junior College will battle Laramie County Community College with the winner advancing to the title game to face Central Wyoming College. NJC swept past McCook 25-15, 25-16, 25-16 while LCCC took out Otero 25-20, 26-24, 36-24.

The Cougars will have a week to prepare before they head to nationals Nov. 17-19 in West Plains, Missouri. The seedings and pairings will be announced Thursday, Nov. 10. Curtis said they will prepare next week for what they hope is a national title.

            “Tonight we punched our ticket to nationals and we will prepare all week,” she said. “We are ready to focus on our next goal.”