Southwestern Community College volleyball players walked through a cheering tunnel of supporters Monday afternoon while boarding a bus to the team’s first national tournament in 14 years.
Coach Melissa Blessington and the 35-9 Spartans departed Creston at 1:30 p.m. and stopped in Joliet, Ill., for a practice session there today before completing the trip to Toledo, Ohio.
The Division II national championships are hosted by Owens Community College Thursday through Saturday. This is Southwestern’s first appearance in the tournament since 1999.
The Spartans, who received votes in the last national poll, are the highest seed of the four unrated teams in the 16-team field. Southwestern is the 12th seed and takes on fifth-seeded Illinois Central, rated sixth in the nation, in the first round at 2 p.m. (CST) Thursday.
(Starting time is listed as 3 p.m. on the Owens CC web site, but all times posted on the official schedule are listed in Ohio’s Eastern Standard Time.)
Southwestern is planning a viewing party in the Student Center Thursday afternoon, and action can be viewed online through Owens CC link on the NJCAA web site — http://www.njcaa.org.
If the Spartans would lose the opener Thursday, they would play play at 11 a.m. Friday in an elimination match. If Southwestern wins the opener, a second-round match in the championship bracket would follow at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
“If we win our first match, we’re guaranteed 10th or higher,” Blessington said. “We need to set the tone and place high. If we would win our first two, we could face (top-ranked) Cowley County, which was the 2011 champion and second last year.”
Grand Rapids, Mich., seeded 10th this year, was the 2012 national champion.
Blessington said the Spartans are not affected by the relatively low seed, 12th in a 16-team field.
“We beat (seventh-ranked) Kirkwood coming out of our region, and our region is tough, a constant battle every night,” Blessington said. “I like being the underdog. We can still surprise people. We have our work cut out for us with Illinois Central. Their coach has been there a long time and they are a perennial team in the tournament. They have one really tall girl, otherwise we match up pretty well.”
Blessington said she is not sure if Jenna Casey, battling a stress fracture, can return to action during the national tournament. Otherwise, the Spartans are healthier than they were at the regional finals, when the team was battling widespread illness.
“Jenna is hoping she can contribute, but she’s still hurting,” Blessington said. “She’s a good outside hitter, so we’d love to have her if she can do it.”
The tournament concludes with all placing matches Saturday, starting with matches for seventh and ninth places at 11 a.m. The national championship match is 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
Division II Tournament
First round — Johnson County (3) vs. Hagerstown (14), 8 a.m.; Glendale (6) vs. DMACC (11), 9 a.m.; Catawba Valley (7) vs. Grand Rapids (10), 10 a.m.; Parkland (2) vs. Moraine Valley (15), 10 a.m.; Cowley County (1) vs. East Central (16), noon; Monroe College (8) vs. Central-Columbus (9), noon; Illinois Central (5) vs. Southwestern (12), 2 p.m.; Oakland (4) vs. South Suburban (13), 2 p.m.
If SWCC wins, second-round match is at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. If SWCC loses to Illinois Central, consolation match is 11 a.m. Friday. Loser of that match is eliminated. Winner plays at 3:30 p.m. Friday.
Saturday — Match for ninth place, 11 a.m.; match for seventh place, 11 a.m.; match for fifth place, 1:30 p.m.; match for third place, 3:30 p.m.; championship match, 5:30 p.m.