At this time last year the Central Lakes College Raiders volleyball team was on its way to the NJCAA Division III tournament at Toledo, Ohio, where it captured the national championship.
The Raiders hit the road this week in hopes of defending their title but this year's national tournament will be more like a home event. It will be played Friday and Saturday at the National Volleyball Center in Rochester, where the state tournament was played last month.
The Raiders, seeded fourth, compete in pool play Friday against No. 5 Columbus State (Ohio), No. 8 Surrey (N.C.) and No. 1 Joliet (Ill.), the nation's top-ranked team. The top two teams from each pool Friday advance to Saturday's finals.
Raiders coach Jane Peterson believes CLC has many advantages entering this year's event. Among them are already having played at Rochester in the state tournament and having defeated archrival Rainy River last weekend for the Region 13B championship.
"We know what to expect about the environment," Peterson said of playing at Rochester. "We have a lot of returning players who know what national tournament experience is like. I can say Columbus State is from Owens (of Toledo's) region and that means something to some of them."
Last weekend, CLC (23-8) swept three games from Rainy River, which had beaten the Raiders three times this season, to return to nationals.
"We just won a huge match," Peterson said. "We feel real good about being (at nationals). Other people might not see it that way because we are defending national champions and are expected to be there. But the match we won (against Rainy River), we won it in a way that gives us a lot of confidence. We have a confidence in each other that I'm not sure we had before.
"We have momentum to defend the national title. Ridgewater was seeded ahead of us (third), which irks some of us. They won the state title but we beat them three times in tournaments. But, because they won our state tournament, obviously, someone decided that had great meaning."
The Raiders return eight sophomores from last year's squad that went 32-6 and did not lose a game in five matches at nationals. Sophomore Amanda Meyer of Pierz said the Raiders expected to have another successful season.
"We knew everybody would want to beat us, and that we would have to be at the top of our game," Meyer said. "When it mattered most, we came through."
All-American setter Katie Bell, another Pierz graduate, said this group of sophomores has been special.
"Amanda and I and (teammate) Jessi (Fischer) are all from Pierz so we were close to begin with," Bell said. "We had played with (teammate) Dana (Dickinson) for a couple years in Junior Olympics so we already knew each other. Other than that, we're all real close. We always do things together."
Dickinson, a sophomore from Eagle Valley and the Raiders' leading hitter, wants to repeat.
"I want to win, I want to defend the title, show everybody that we can do it again," Dickinson said. "I think people were kind of iffy that we were going to go again. We showed them that we can make it."
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