The Grand Rapids Community College Raiders volleyball team won their third straight regional title over the weekend, punching their ticket into the national tournament in West Virginia.
The Raiders were the No. 1 seed in the tournament, but stumbled early. GRCC swept the Lansing Community College Stars on Thursday night, but dropped their next match against the Muskegon Community College Jayhawks on Friday and were forced to fight their way back through the loser’s bracket.
GRCC sophomore middle blocker Kayla Salyer talked about what that early loss did for the Raiders and how it motivated them the rest of the way through the weekend.
“Losing to Muskegon in the first round actually did us a favor,” Salyer said. “It really opened our eyes and showed us where we need to improve. Our energy and team chemistry was just not there that day. But once we realized what we had to do in order to go to nationals, our eyes were set on the prize.
“(We) knew that it was our last chance, and we said we were not going to go home until we left everything that we had on the volleyball court, and I think we did just that. Our team came together and pushed through a very hard 10 sets of volleyball. And now, we are going to West Virginia. There is no better feeling, and I am so proud of this team.”
Following the team’s 3-1 loss to Muskegon on Friday night, they had to face the Glen Oaks Community College Vikings on Saturday. The Raiders dominated Glen Oaks in a 3-0 sweep where none of the matches were close. Kendra DeJonge and Danielle Johnston led the way for the Raiders with a combined 19 kills in the win.
Sophomore middle blocker Ally German praised the team’s coaching staff and emphasized enjoying the ride, even after a loss.
“Chip (Will), Dave (Rawles) and Amanda (Glaza) are all working hard in overdrive to give us the best opportunity to succeed at nationals,” German said. “They are always looking at film and ways we can improve in practice, but also making it fun so we can all enjoy the journey to a national title which is really great and important to us as players.”
The Raiders got a chance at revenge as they moved into the championship round to face the Muskegon team that had beaten them the night before.
In Saturday’s first match against the Jayhawks, it was the freshmen who stepped up in a big way. Johnston, Breanna Wickerink and Emma Pachulski were three of the top four in kills on the team. Those along with DeJonge’s 14 kills and 20 digs helped lead the Raiders to a sweep of the Jayhawks and forced a winner-take-all, tie-breaking game with Muskegon.
In their fourth match of the weekend, the Raiders were fighting for a trip to the national tournament. Facing the Jayhawks for the third time in two days, the two teams were very familiar with each other, creating a competitive final match.
GRCC won the first and second sets and were looking to sweep their second straight match with the Jayhawks. Muskegon rose to the challenge though, and in the third set, dominated the Raiders to the tune of a 25-15 win. The fourth set was a tight one, but when it came down to the end, the Raiders held on for a 25-23 win.
DeJonge was once again at the forefront of this match. She had 24 kills, two aces and 23 digs to help the Raiders claim the National Junior College Athletic Association District F Regional Championship. The Collegiate reached out to Raiders’ head coach Chip Will for a comment about DeJonge’s awards, but he couldn’t be reached. DeJonge was named Tournament MVP as well as the 2018 MCCAA Western Conference Player of the Year.
“Being recognized as player of the year is something that I need to thank my teammates, coaches and family for,” DeJonge said. “I wouldn’t be the player I am without the constant support and encouragement from them all.
“I’ve worked hard the past two years at GRCC, and to be recognized makes my hard work and dedication worth it. I try to be the best I can be for this program and it’s an honor to be recognized.”
DeJonge wasn’t the only player to be recognized for her spectacular play this year. She and Johnston were named to the all-regional and all-conference team. Salyer and German were also named to the all-conference team while Wickerink and Autumn Severn were second team all-conference. Kelsie Schultz received an honorable mention and Johnston was named to the all-freshman team.
German addressed the honor of being named first team all-conference and hopes that her perseverance through tough injuries will inspire others to keep going after their goals.
“It means a lot to me being recognized as first team all-conference,” German said. “Since this is my last season playing volleyball, it really makes me feel really proud that all of my hard work and pushing through all my injuries paid off. It will also show future Raiders, or really anyone in our conference that injuries don’t define you and with some time and hard work, you can get over the bumps and still accomplish your goals.”
Salyer echoed her sentiments and credited her coaches with helping her get recognized for the honor despite missing time this season.
“First Team All-Conference is such an honor,” Salyer said. “I went down with an ankle injury and was out for two and a half weeks missing a lot of conference games, so I know my coaches really pushed for me hard to be recognized. I’m just glad (with) my progress from last year to this year.”
Awards and recognitions are nice, but they won’t help the Raiders win the national title. The team will travel to Charleston, West Virginia to fight for the championship. The Raiders have had little adversity in the way of losses this year, but German highlighted what the team needs to do if they want to end the season on top.
“In order for us to win the national title, we have some work to do,” German said. “Our team has some pretty amazing natural talent, but we need to make sure that everything is consistent and clean when we play. Everyone needs to put 110 percent into their jobs on and off the court. There are going to be some pretty tough teams to beat at nationals, but I really believe we have the talent and capability to make it all the way to the end.”
DeJonge echoed German’s thoughts and thinks if the team can keep their on court demeanor and energy right, they will be a force to be reckoned with.
“I think our biggest adjustment would have to be our demeanor on the court,” DeJonge said. “It’s going to take everyone on our team to keep winning and to do that, we all have to know that we are a great team and have the confidence to take on any opponent… having energy every single point is the thing I think will help us most at nationals.”
The NJCAA Division II National Tournament kicks off Thurs., Nov. 15 and will run through Sat., Nov. 17. The tournament schedule for the Raiders has yet to be determined.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Tues., Nov. 6 at 10:20 p.m. to add comments from sophomore outside hitter Kendra DeJonge.