With 22 victories and a No. 18 ranking in the NAIA, Rocky Mountain College is on the verge of qualifying for the national tournament in women’s volleyball for the first time in school history.
“We’d love to be the team to do it,” said Laurie Kelly, Rocky’s fourth-year coach.
So with their sights set squarely on getting to nationals, the Battlin’ Bears will swing into action tonight at the eight-team Frontier Conference tournament in Lewis-Clark State’s Activity Center in Lewiston, Idaho.
Rocky, 22-6 overall and seeded No. 2, will play Montana State-Northern, seeded seventh and 11-13 overall, in the opening round. The Bears, powered by their strong hitting and blocking, have beaten the Skylights twice this season.
The semifinal and championship matches will take place Saturday.
Rocky has been ranked in the national poll since early October — and Kelly said the school’s first taste of national attention since 2000 has provided her players with plenty of incentive.
“They’ve consumed themselves with protecting that ranking and how important every game is,” she said.
Coupled with another win or two this weekend, the Bears’ high ranking and glossy record will likely assure them at least an at-large berth to nationals, with a possible first-round match at home on Nov. 20.
Kelly isn’t leaving anything to chance.
“We need to be in that championship game, because you just don’t know,” she said. “That’s where we’re looking at. We want to get into that championship game. Once we get in that game, we have nothing to lose.”
Top-seeded Lewis-Clark State is ranked ninth nationally, is 25-1 overall and has won 17 consecutive matches. The Warriors are the three-time reigning tournament champions and are 35-0 against conference opponents on their home court since 2007.
Rocky, which has lost twice to the Warriors this season, wouldn’t cross paths with L-C State until the title showdown.
“They’re tough to beat on their home court. They know it. We know it, and everybody knows it,” Kelly said. “But there’s got to be an upset soon, one of these days — and we just hope it’s us doing it to them.”
The winner of the Frontier tournament receives an automatic berth to the 36-team national tournament, which begins Nov. 20 with 12 first-round matches on campus sites.
The 12 teams atop the NAIA’s final Top 25 poll, which will be released on Sunday, will get first-round byes and will advance directly to the tournament’s final site — Tyson Events Center/Gateway Arena — in Sioux City, Iowa, where play continues Nov. 30-Dec. 4.
Those 12 will be joined by the 12 winners from the Nov. 20 matches.
Heading into Frontier tournament play, the Bears are sitting second in the league for total kills and hitting percentage.
“We’re playing the best we’ve ever played right now,” sophomore defensive specialist Jamie Elenbaas said. “We’re at the top of our game and just kind of going with it, I guess.”
Rocky’s individual leaders include Sara Brunner (253 kills, 285 digs), Jillian Bates (229 kills, 70 blocks), Kristin Barott (912 assists, 37 aces), Jessica Overstreet (74 blocks, 296 digs) and Elenbaas (314 digs).
The Bears have won their past six matches and 12 out of 13, but now they’re playing for titles and school history.
“We’re still real hungry,” said Brunner, an outside hitter. “But we know we have to take it one game at a time. When we were up at Havre, (Northern) took a set off of us and that’s our first game. If we win it, then we’re going to focus on the next game.”