The pressure is on for this year’s Lady Sharks volleyball team. After going undefeated last season and capping that off with a second-straight national championship, they are hoping to win a third straight national title—the tenth in the program’s history.
The team, which is ranked first in the nation by the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I Volleyball Poll Committee, knows they have a target on their back.
“I don’t like it,” Lady Sharks Head Coach Origenes ‘Kiko’ Benoit. “I like to be in the position to snatch that top ranking away from another team.”
If the Lady Sharks complete the three-peat, it would be the first time in the program’s history and only the third time in NJCAA history (Kellogg Community College in Michigan won three-straight from 1978-80 and Southern Idaho won six-straight titles from 1993-1998).
In addition to being being ranked first overall for the second year in a row, the team has won 44 straight matches, including a perfect 34-0 season last year. The Lady Sharks have not lost since Oct. 25, 2016 when they were defeated by Palm State College.
“We have higher expectations this season than we usually have had,” said Natalie Gutierrez, an assistant coach for the Lady Sharks. “That just means that we have to work harder each week and make sure that we get everything perfect during practices.”
One of the challenges this team faces is chemistry. After last season, the Lady Sharks lost various key players like outside hitter Massiel Matos, who was the American Volleyball Coaches Association Player of the Year for two-year colleges the past two years, libero Thais De Castro Andrade and outside hitter Sun Wenting to graduation.
The team is hoping that last year’s crop of freshman—now sophomores—like setter Tiziana Baumrukova, who played this summer for the Czech National Team, and Brazilian setter Thayna Mendes can guide the team on and off the court.
“There’s a lot on our shoulders,” Benoit said. “This is a new team and it’s shown through these summer practices. We need to make sure our team is clicking with its chemistry but that’s going to have to be done through practices. I know these girls can do it though.”
The team is emphasizing the importance of team-building exercises inside and outside of practices.
“We’re doing everything we can to get to know each other,” Baumrukova said. “Whether it’s talking to each other and making the freshman know that they’re not alone on this team to spending time with everyone when we’re not in practice.”
Benoit is confident in his team’s ability to succeed this year.
“Like every season, it’s going to be work,” Benoit said. “We’re not going to let any of these expectations get in our heads. We have to practice hard and play hard but I know they can do it. They’re a talented team.”
The Lady Sharks next game is Aug. 31 versus Iowa Western Community College at the Polk State Invitational in Winter Haven, Florida at 11 a.m.