For most of the 2021 season, the NDSCS volleyball team has defied the odds. The Wildcats shook off back-to-back losses in early October, reeling off five consecutive wins to claim the Region XIII Championship and earn Head Coach Jane Passa her 13th Region Coach of the Year award with a 23-10 record.
Central Community College out of Columbus, Nebraska, has been Passa’s kryptonite throughout her 23-year tenure at NDSCS. Despite a 623-239 record, Passa had never beaten the Raiders — until now. The Wildcats clawed their way back with five straight set wins in the Northwest Plains District Championship Nov. 6 for a trip to the NJCAA Division II National Tournament.
“That was a marathon right there, there’s no sprint in that. It was a big deal to beat Central. Over the last 10 years we’ve played them quite often and for some reason, their kids always found a way to win,” Passa said.
Oh how the tables have turned, with NDSCS flipping it’s 0-3 start into a Cinderella season that has the team confident rolling into nationals. No. 5 seed NDSCS draws No. 12 seed Sauk Valley at 3 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18.
“When we struggled, I told them to trust the process. Everyone was kind of panicky and I was right there with them,” Passa said. “Tradition doesn’t graduate, that’s what we preach and it’s the truth. We always play in the region championship.”
Wildcat students and fans gathered at the Claire T. Blikre Activities Center Tuesday to send the team off to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Passa praised her team for being true student athletes and making education a priority.
“In the past, we’ve had teams who sleep on the bus. This team studies on the bus,” Passa said. “Most of our girls were up at 4:30 a.m. for clinicals in Sisseton and back in time for the sendoff. I’m not the number one priority. I’ve had years where it’s us first, then maybe the boyfriend and education. It’s the opposite this year, but I’m so proud of them for putting education first, because a lot of them just want to go on and be a professional.”
NDSCS didn’t make tournament talk a taboo subject through the peaks and valleys of the season. The goal was always to grind its way through the playoffs and onward to Iowa. They know they belong.
“We do talk about the national tournament, some teams don’t talk about it but we do. They need to understand what the end goal is. We try to plant the seed early, that’s what our goals and expectations are,” Passa said.
Passa has developed Wildcat Volleyball into a JUCO mainstay. It’s a culture that has sisters recruiting sisters, cousins recruiting cousins, and giving the staff a strong grasp on recruiting in the region.
“People in our area want to see kids from their hometown play. We’ve probably had 12 sisters come through here. That also tells me I’ve been here for a long time,” Passa chuckled. “It’s a big deal and it means a lot to me that they were treated well and want others to be a part of the experience.”
Stu Engen, NDSCS Athletic Director, received high praise from Passa.
“Stu does a great job keeping equity within our department and trying to provide things so that we can be successful,” Passa said. “I thank our administration, because this isn’t a cheap trip, but it’s a life-changing trip. These girls will make lifelong friends and memories. That’s what athletics is truly about.”
Led by Mon-Dak All-Conference selections Jalen Ennen and Katie Krieger, NDSCS is a truly deep team. Seven different players have recorded at least 110 kills this season, led by over 200 kills each from Stella Raser, Maddie McKinnon and Ennen. Daily News Athlete of the Year finalist Bailee Brommenschenkel leads the defense with 101 block attempts and 194 kills to boot.
Brommenschenkel and company will have their hands full with Skyhawks’ outside hitter Michal Willman, who leads the nation with 762 kills. Sauk Valley has ridden Willman’s dominant season to a 39-2 record.
“Bailee does a good job, just gets in there and does her job. I’m proud of her,” Passa said. “Our blocking is going to be everything. I’ve watched game film on Willman ... she is legit.”
Passa emphasized that one player alone cannot take down a team of 14. They aren’t underdogs, they’re Wildcats.
“We feel very good about our matchup. I just want them to go enjoy it and compete,” Passa said. “In 2001, we took second in the nation. I’ve gone there and gotten blown out and I’ve gone there and been competitive. It seems like every year there’s a 12-seed upset in basketball, why not us in volleyball?”
Thursday’s game can be streamed at the official NJCAA website. Read about it in the weekend edition of Daily News.