There's only one thing standing in the way of the Central Lakes College Raiders' volleyball team making a trip to this year's National Junior College Athletic Association tournament in Toledo, Ohio.
No, it's not the thought of going to Toledo. It's a Rainy River volleyball team that the Raiders have defeated three of the four times the squads have met this year.
At 3 p.m. Saturday the Raiders will host Rainy River in the Region 13A playoff. The winner will advance to the 8-team national tournament Nov. 10-11 in Toledo.
The Raiders have built a 26-6 record this year. In the process, they've won the Minnesota Community College Conference Northern Division championship and the Minnesota Community College state title. Winning the region title and earning the trip to the national tournament would be crowning jewels on a season of achievement.
Rainy River brings a 26-7 into the region tournament. One of those wins was over CLC in a match played at Rainy River. The Raiders have been riding a wave of confidence lately and the momentum from winning the division and state championships should carry over to Saturday's match. The one concerned person in all this is Raiders head coach Jane Peterson.
"I'm worrying about this match," said Peterson, "but hopefully, the rest of our team isn't.
"The last two times we've played Rainy River, we've beaten them in three straight games. We've played well against them but I think they are a better team than the way they've played. We've served the ball really well in those last two matches and they haven't passed very well. They've gotten frustrated."
The key to continuing the Raiders' win streak may be in how well CLC can control the one impact player on the Rainy River squad, freshman middle hitter Katie Carlson.
"They rely on Katie Carlson a lot to score," said Peterson. "She's a good, smart hitter. She's a very good player. We know she likes to hit down the line, so we'll defend against that. They'll have to move her around more. If they change things, I'm pretty confident that we can make any adjustments that we'll need to make.
"We know Rainy River's tendencies and, so far, they haven't been able to adjust to us. Hopefully, we can serve tough like we have been doing because that really throws them off. Rainy River is a very young team, all of them are freshmen. The passing game is a very mental thing so we'll try to take advantage of that again and defend Carlson."
When you watch the Raiders, you get the feeling this is a team that thoroughly enjoys playing together. They communicate constantly during matches, sharing insights about adjustments that might help them perform better.
"We have smart enough players, experienced enough players that, if I ask them to make an adjustment, they can do it," said Peterson. "They can see things on the court, they tell each other and that's fun. This is one of the smartest and most experienced teams I've ever coached.
"The team unity we have and the confidence we're playing with now is, I hope, going to be hard to break. During the state tournament, there were times when we were behind 7-1. But there was never a doubt that we'd come back and win. That kind of confidence and that kind of mental game is our strength right now.
"And, we're very confident at home. We haven't lost at home this year. I know this team has worked pretty hard and we know everything we need to know to get to a national tournament."
Saturday will give Brainerd lakes area residents a chance to see one of the top community college volleyball teams in the nation. It will also be the last opportunity to see the Raiders in action his season, unless, of course, you're itching for an excuse to make a trek to Toledo.
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