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Broncos prepare for NJCAA tournament

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Pictured is the NMMI volleyball team, top row, from left, Agape Mafua, Mariah Morris, Madison Harris, McKayla Landreth, Mirna Kovacevic, Hannah Davis, Megan Martinez, Beki Eaton, and Gali Sanchez. Bottom row, from left, Brigitte Needham, Vasiti Baleilomaloma, Valentina Vincent, Lexie Jackson, Karime Raygoza, Briana Bustillos, Paola Rivera-Herrera, and Kim Trauboth. (NMMI Sports Press Photo)

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The Bronco volleyball team has been to the NJCAA’s national tournament three years in a row, and four out of the last five years. For some, that makes the November road trip almost routine. But for the squad and its coaches, it’s anything but.

“I think sometimes people downplay this just because we have gone the last four or five years, but this is hard,” said coach Shelby Forchtner. “It’s hard to win our region every year because we have really good teams in our region. It’s hard to play well in conference then turn around and beat everybody the very next weekend. So it’s not easy, and these kids have just done a really good job of staying focused this year.”

That focus included sweeping through both the conference regular season and the regional tournament undefeated — a first for the Institute — with only a very few matches going to more than three games. All their losses were at tough tournaments, most to highly-ranked teams. Which might seem a negative, heading into a tournament where everyone is ranked.

But Forchtner is thinking positive.

“I actually have a lot of confidence in them going into the national tournament and knocking off a big seed,” she said. “I hope they have the same confidence because I really think this year we could go do some damage.

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“We’ve looked at the top four teams, had game film on them, and have picked it apart to figure out what we want to do next. We’re not really going to change anything in how we do things. We’re just going to try to do things a little bit better so we can slow them down.”

The No. 13-ranked Broncos (28-11) will face No. 4 Western Nebraska (32-6) in the opener, a team the coach said her squad matches up well against.

“I think they are very similar to us in that they’re very balanced,” she said. “They have a lot of different offensive threats and they’ve got good defense. So I feel like we match up pretty well with them, and if we have one or two people who stand out and play really well, and we serve tough, then I think we can kind of take charge.”

The Cougars seem to struggle when people serve them tough, the coach said, and serving tough is one of the Bronco’s assets. But it’s only one of many positives this year.

“We do a lot of things really well,” Forchtner said. “I think it’s hard for teams to stop us because we have so many offensive weapons.”

Two of those weapons include NJCAA All-American nominees Paola Rivera-Herrea – a freshman – and sophomore Hannah Davis.

Mexican native Rivera-Herrera led the Broncos in set assists (644) and service aces (67) this season, and was third on the team in kills (238), despite her setter status.

Davis, a right-side hitter from Utah, is NMMI’s kill leader with 325. She’s also been helping shut down opposing offenses – second on the team in total blocks with 115.

Sophomore middles Gali Sanchez and McKayla Landreth are both solid in their positions, playing 38 out of the Broncos’ 39 matches to date.

Sanchez, a local talent from Roswell, NM, adds another 172 kills to that potent Institute attack, along with 43 total blocks on the defensive side.

Landreth is a South Carolinian with family in Fort Sumner, NM – including sister Ashley, a former standout Bronco volleyball player. McKayla is a wall on defense, leading NMMI in blocks with 122. She’s also second on the team in kills with 291.

El Pasoan Megan Martinez has worked her way into the rotation as well. The freshman middle has amassed 147 kills and 97 blocks during her 37 matches.

“And we’ve got some good people back there defending this year,” Forchtner said, singling out liberos Karime Raygoza and Briana Bustillos, who battled all year for the position.

Las Vegas, NV freshman Raygoza is No.1 on the team stat list for digs with 374.

Bustillos, another New Mexico product from Chamberino, has 158 digs on the season.

German import and all-aroundplayer Kim Trauboth has 302 digs, 30 blocks, 44 aces and 231 kills.

“And then Mirna (Kovacevic), statistically, is one of the best defending setters that we’ve had in a long time” said coach Forchtner.

The Serbian sophomore has 562 set assists, 60 aces, and 161 digs.

“We’re just a really balanced team. When you’re good in every single spot, it’s hard to beat teams like that. I think that’s why we’ve been so successful this year. And we have depth on our bench. We haven’t really had that in year’s past. Two, three, four people have had to really carry the load. This year it’s spread evenly and we have people who can come in off the bench and do some really good things for us if somebody’s not playing well.”

Plus, as player Sanchez said, the team unity is palpable.

“I think the special thing we have about this team is we’re one,” the Roswell native said. “Nobody is divided, everybody is one. When it comes to stuff in the locker room, on the court, downstairs in the weight room, we’re always as one. Nobody gets left behind. Everybody’s always there to pick each other up and help each other out.”

Teammate Kovacevic agreed.

“We are a very athletic team, with a lot of different personalities come together,” she said. “It just works really well. It’s great to see us all come together and play. We’re just a good group.”

The Broncos have one other plus they can look to compared to past nationals.

The last tournaments were all in Cheyenne, Wyo., but this year, Hutchinson Community College hosts, at a venue NMMI knows well.

“We have played there every year except for one, I think, in my last 14 years,” Forchtner said. “We were already there in September and won some games out there. And that’s one of the things we talked to our kids about, too: ‘Hey, this is where the national tournament is going to be held and we’re going to see what it’s like and what the venue is like and how to play in this environment.’”

The Broncos head for Kansas Tuesday, practice and attend the tournament’s banquet on Wednesday, then open against Western Nebraska at 2 p.m.

“I’m just really proud of our team,” Kovacevic said. “I really hope we can come together at nationals, control our side and beat the No. 4 team in the nation.”