WNCC defensive specialist Lexi Keoho is excited to be playing at the national tournament and realizes that the defensive effort will be crucial if the team hopes to bring home a third national title.

“I think it is a really big deal to be going to nationals, especially with the team that we have now,” Keoho, who is from Hawaii, said. “We have such a stacked group of girls and they are all talented, so I think we have to figure out how to put everything together to become successful.”

The WNCC Cougars won their 22nd Region IX title back on Nov. 4 when they played one of their best matches in a four-set win over Central Wyoming College to earn the automatic berth into the national tourney.

The Cougars garnered the fourth seed into the tourney and will face No. 13 Blinn College at 2 p.m. MST on Thursday. A win against Blinn will move the Cougars into a quarterfinals match later Thursday evening against the winner of the Missouri State-West Plains and Northeastern Junior College contest. A loss moves the Cougars down into a consolation game Friday afternoon.

Keoho said they can make some noise down there if they play like they are capable because they have improved so much from a year ago when WNCC finished fourth at the regional tournament.

“I think the big difference is we figured out how to be a team and to always have each other's back and back each other up no matter what the situation.”

Keoho said this team has all the makings to bring home the school’s third national title and that is something that is on the team’s radar.

“This team can definitely bring home a national title,” Keoho said.

A big key to the team’s success is how the defense plays and that was evident in the championship match against Central Wyoming where the team played one of their best defensive matches of the season.

WNCC finished with 62 total digs and had three players with double-figure digs and several more right around 10 digs. Shanelle Martinez led the way with 16 digs followed by libero AK Chavez with 12 and Erica Fava with 10. Jenna Curtis had nine digs, while Keoho and Ale Meoni each had seven.

“I think defense will be what wins us our games,” Keoho said. “It is a huge part of volleyball and it is the first step to everything else that comes into play. It will be key like that (Central Wyoming) match. It is important to play like that and it is huge. That game we were one. We were not individuals and we played together as one and it was amazing to watch everyone come together and play.”

Blinn College is a team that seems like they are about the make-up of the Cougars heightwise.

The difference is the Cougars have eight sophomores on the team while Blinn is young with just two sophomores in 5-foot-5 Ellie Turner and 5-10 Kierslyn Wright. Turner is one of the top liberos as she has had 27 matches with over 20 digs and another seven with over 30 digs.

Wright is the team leader in kills with 605 kills this season. She is also an all-around player as she has 417 digs and 74 aces served.

Keoho said besides watching some film, they really don’t know much about Blinn.

“We don’t know much (about Blinn),” she said. “We watched some of their videos. We will take some time to break everything down so we are 100% ready to play them.”

The one thing that might be in the Cougars favor is depth and how much offensive production they get from the team. Blinn had just four players with over 100 kills on the season. WNCC has five players with over 100 kills this season. Fava leads with 380 kills followed by Curtis with 357, Meoni at 278, Emmalei Mapu at 225, and Alex Hernandez at 164.

The setters on both teams are both freshmen, WNCC’s freshman Martinez has 1,252 set assists this season and is averaging 10.43 per set. Blinn has a pair of setters that have shared that duty in Kelsi Wingo with 531 assists (6.03 per set) and Darby Nash with 872 (7.86 per set).

Keoho said this year has been special and she said she has really improved a lot as a player and person in her two years at WNCC.

“Over my two years here, I think I have improved a lot. I have become a better communicator, a better teammate, a better leader, and I think this program has helped in all-around skills.”

Keoho is hoping to go on to play volleyball at a four-year school and will see what schools will be interested in her talents after the national tournament.