Early today, 6:30 a.m. to be precise, under the cover of darkness and all but unnoticed, the Central Lakes College Raiders volleyball team, champions of the Minnesota Community College Conference, the state tournament and Region 13A, left for the national tournament in Toledo, Ohio.
There was no band, parade or pep rally, just a confident team alone with a goal of winning a national championship. It's a goal their coach, Jane Peterson, sees as being within their reach.
"I believe we can win this thing," Peterson said Wednesday before her team's last practice at CLC. "I've spent a lot of time this week talking about not just going to Toledo but, if we're going to go there, that we might as well go there to win. I believe that's possible."
In saying that, Peterson is reflecting a confidence that has been her team's signature on each of its 27 wins this season.
"As a team, we do have great confidence in each other," said Peterson. "We've had games where we've been able to overcome being behind 0-7 or 1-7. We've done that without having had an emotional breakdown on the court. We've been behind but we've never panicked. For so long we've been this solid, solid team. And that's a championship team.
"We've shown we can face hard situations and not fall apart, not blame each other, not get mad at each other or be negative at all. We've been such a positive team all year. Based on that, I believe we can win."
The Raiders will be playing in a pool with Onondaga Community College (37-1), Surry College (17-0) and Rochester, Minn., a team the Raiders beat on their way to winning the state championship.
The second pool also has teams the Raiders know. Owens Community College and DuPage are schools the Raiders faced in a pre-season tournament in Chicago.
"During the Chicago tournament," said Peterson, "we lost to Owens and we beat DuPage. Both of them are good teams. We didn't lose by a lot and we didn't win by a lot. I think we're a better team now than we were then but so are they so we'll see.
"We've received a three seed in this tournament and that's based mostly on the reputation of our region. We've done well before at national tournaments."
Community college volleyball teams do not exchange game tapes the way football teams do. That makes it difficult to know what any team's strengths or even tendencies are. In this tournament, each team will be putting its strongest game on the court, and living and dying with its playing and athletic ability rather than its ability to plan strategy.
"This team is really good at making adjustments during the games," said Peterson. "If need be, I can call in any adjustments from the sideline without needing a timeout to do that. I will try to not over-coach because these are good players. They're experienced and they can make little adjustments by themselves. If we just play hard and play our best, that's all we can do. And, if we do that, that will be good enough for us to be one of the top two teams in our pool, I'm pretty sure of that."
The four teams in each pool will play each other Friday. Then, the two teams from each pool with the best record will advance to the semifinal and championship matches Saturday. That means the Raiders will play three matches Friday and, if they continue to advance, two more Saturday.
"Friday will be a long, hard day of volleyball," said Peterson "Probably the team that wins the second day (in the championship round) will be the team that recovers the best after the first day."
Despite the demanding slate of games, Peterson likes her team's chances. When she looks at her team and what she sees tells her the Raiders have what it takes to be national champions.
"Championship teams act like champions from the moment they walk into a gym," she said. "We've been able to do that this year because we've been having so much fun when we play. It's always important for any team to have fun, but it's been even more so for this team. We've just been so together as a team, so confident in each other. Everyone on the team is on the same page so we go into a match expecting to win and everyone is convinced it's going to happen."
Whatever happens in Toledo, the team will return to Brainerd Sunday. The Raiders' plane is scheduled to arrive in Minneapolis at 11:30 a.m., which should put them back in Brainerd by about 4 p.m. That time frame means more people can see them return than saw them leave.
"The school and the people have been more supportive than usual this year," said Peterson. "These kids notice that. It's been exiting for us that people care. That helps make it fun."
Win or lose, the Raiders will have earned a little fun, and a warm, enthusiastic reception, when they return.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.