The Bronco volleyball team opened its season in amazing fashion last weekend: sweeping through the home-town Bronco Invitational not only with a 4-0 record without dropping a single set.
The Institute topped Garden City Community College 25-10, 29-27, 25-13; South Mountain Community College 25-23, 25-14, 25-15; Hutchinson Community College 25-21, 25-16, 25-16; and North Central Texas College 25-14, 25-15, 25-19.
It was a promising start for a team that closed the 2017 season with a third-place finish at the NJCAA’s National Championships, and came into 2018 with a pre-season No. 5 ranking. But head coach Shelby Forchtner said those rankings mean nothing.
“Preseason polls are basically what you did at nationals, then they try to move a few people around, just thinking, ‘We don’t know what everybody has now or what they lost exactly.’ Then they just throw out a preseason poll to be nice,” she said. “It’s awesome to be ranked like this, but you’ve just got a big target on your back, and who wants that?”
But Forchtner is confident her team can be as good if not better than last year’s squad, despite losing two players who earned All-American honors, and a third player who was equally as good, with all three topping the 6-foot level.
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“The dynamic in our gym this year is different than last year, because we’re just a little bit faster,” Forchtner said. “We’re a little more athletic. Our defense is amazing. And we serve really, really, really, really well. We try to control things from the serving line to keep other teams out of system, so then in turn we’re getting easier tempo balls and they’re not able to shove it right down our throat because we don’t have the bigs. And it’s working right now.”
As a team, the Broncos picked up 31 aces, led by Yumeno Nawa with 12 and Barbara Celar with seven.
“We served really well against every single team,” the coach said. “That’s doesn’t always show in the aces stat column. When you can push somebody deep into the 15-foot line and their setter is having to adjust to every single ball and just run around like crazy, you get an easier tempo ball over the net.”
And while the team also has 27 serving errors, Forchtner isn’t too concerned.
“I think our defense is really going to carry us this year, and if we can continue to have this offensive momentum with our hitting percentages, … we’ll take two or three or even four missed serves if we’re going to keep somebody out of system for the 20 other points.”
In addition to stellar serving, this year’s Bronco squad also boasts a top-notch defense.
NMMI has an awesome back-row trio — 5-foot-4 freshman Nawa, from Japan; 5-1 frosh Ha’ahulakaleikaimana Crisostomo from Hawaii; and 5-6 sophomore Karime Raygoza from Las Vegas, Nev. — each of which could play libero for just about any team.
“I think we have three Division I liberos sitting in our gym right now,” Forchtner said. “These three kids are very similar. They all have different strengths, but it’s just such a slight difference from the other person that it’s not even something that you can use against them.”
All three saw plenty of time on the floor in the four games in Cahoon Armory and Forchtner expects them to battle each other to actually play in the libero spot.
“Those three kids are so good and so solid, that if one kid just comes in and blows somebody else out of the water because somebody’s sleeping because they wore the jersey the week before, they could take that spot away from them very easily. I don’t think a lot of other programs have that in their gym. Usually you’ve got one libero who usually stands out above everybody else, then you’ve got some defensive kids who fill in for some swings and that’s just not the case right now.”
The Broncos have a similar situation on offense. Veteran soph Kim Trauboth, a 5-foot-8 outside hitter from Germany, played in 42 of NMMI’s 43 matches last season, but was injured in the Broncos’ first match against Garden City. So at least early in the season, NMMI will be looking at three newcomers.
“Right now, we’ve got three freshman outsides who are the same as our liberos,” Forchtner said. “They are so unbelievably similar that it was really hard for us to decide who was going to play. Then Kim got hurt, so one of the other ones had to step in. I think it’s going to be a competition for the starting spots all year between those three. We’re going to have to watch every practice. We’re going to have to watch every warmup. And it’s really going to be based on who is playing well in that moment.”
That trio includes Peyton Schendt, a 6-footer from Nebraska; 5-8 Violeta Mendoza Quintana from Mexico; and 5-10 Gabriela Langi from Utah.
Celar, a 5-8 freshman from Bosnia, will set, and despite filling the spot previously held by All-American Karen “Paola” Rivera-Herrera, Forchtner is equally confident about her abilities.
“The more comfortable she gets, the better and better she’s going to get,” the coach said. “Because she is a very, very, very good setter. In fact, she’s probably one of the better ones we’ve had here in a really long time, and she’s going to be the kid who just gets better as the year goes on.”
Then there are two sophomores on offense, 6-0 Megan Martinez from El Paso, Texas and 5-8 Agape Mafua from American Samoa, who’s easily the hardest hitter on the team.
“We’ve been working with [Agape] for a while now on control,” Forchtner said. “‘Yes, if you see a seam you can hit it 100 miles an hour, but if you don’t, we need you to do something a little bit different.’ And she kind of struggled with that just a little bit this weekend, but she’s still hitting for a super-high hitting percentage in all four games.”
That percentage was .509 for four games, and with 33 points scored, Mafua was second only to Schendt (40) in that category.
But while those are the names that saw the most playing time opening weekend, everyone on the team played in at least one match, and Forchtner is confident she’s got a well-rounded squad.
“We’ve got some freshmen in there plugging away just kind of doing a good job too. But we’ve also got some really good sophomores on the bench too, who if they keep working, they’re going to get in and get some playing time as well.
“Honestly, every single kid who’s standing on our bench can play. Some of these freshmen just need to get caught up to the speed of the game and just need a few technical things, but I think by October some of those kids are going to come alive.”
While the Bronco Classic opponents were far from pushovers — the coach was especially concerned with the physicality of Hutchinson and NCTC — the Institute will really get a chance to see what they can do this weekend at the Salt Lake Community College Crystal INNvitational, where they’ll face two “Big Dogs”, including No. 2-ranked College of Southern Idaho.
“We know Salt Lake and CSI are both going to be really good, competitive teams,” Forchtner said. “They are every single year. We know that those two matches are going to be top 20 teams that we’re going to have to go in and face and will probably be some of the best teams we’ll face all year. But that’s what we want. We want a competitive environment for these kids from start to finish and we think that that’s what’s really helps us be successful.”
After their trip to Utah, the Broncos will travel to Clarendon, Texas on today to take on the Bulldogs in both teams’ first match in Western Junior College Athletic Conference play. Then it’s a grueling schedule of weekends on the road at top-tier tournaments, with conference matches slated on Wednesday nights.
NMMI’s next match at home will be on one of those Wednesdays, vs. Odessa College at 7:00 P.M. MDT on Sept. 12, and as always, the entire community of the Pecos Valley is welcome and encouraged to come out and watch some of the best junior college athletes in the nation compete in some amazing volleyball action.