LIBERAL, Kan. (BVM) — Seward County Community College has been building something special with its volleyball program.
The Saints have won 88% of their matches (96-11) over the past three years and have reached the NJCAA Division I national tournament each of the past two seasons. They placed fourth in the nation in 2018 and last year, they fell just two points short of claiming their first-ever national title in a five-set loss to Navarro College (Texas) in the championship match.
The plan for this year was to build on last year’s historic run, take another step up and this time finish the job at nationals.
“Once the incredible season was over, I began to reflect on the things we lacked to win the national title,” returning sophomore libero Grecia Soriano said. “As soon as I found out what those factors were, I made a promise to return with much more energy in order to win the national title this time. Besides, we all promised each other to win the final but not individually, but as a team and more than anything as a family.”
Seward County will get its chance to make another run at history, but not as soon as expected. Earlier this month, the NJCAA made the decision to shift all close-contact fall sports to the spring semester due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. That includes volleyball, which was originally scheduled to begin in August but now won’t start until Jan. 2021.
“To be honest, I think it might be a good thing because we can prepare our teams a little bit more,” Seward County athletic director Dan Artamenko said. “Volleyball will have five to six months to prepare versus at most five weeks. We’ll be able to transition really well and I think teams across the country will as well and I think you’ll see a high-level play of sports in the spring.”
The extra preparation time actually comes at a good time for the Saints, who are looking for a new head coach. Tony Trifonov, who led Seward County for the past two seasons, left the program this month to take the head coaching job at NCAA Division I Chicago State.
Artamenko said it’s imperative to have a new coach in place by the fall even with the start of the season being delayed.
“We’re still running a team and practices and maybe even scrimmages as normal,” Artamenko said. “We’ll be looking to have a coach that can come in this fall that way they don’t fall behind. We’ve had a lot of success and we want to keep continuing that.”
Whoever takes the reins for the Saints, Soriano is confident that she and her teammates will adapt.
“We’re sure that whoever comes will bring knowledge and experience, and we will be happy to receive them,” Soriano said. “And we will support each other, and as long as we all have the same goal, we will all adapt easily. We are very excited.”
The return of one of the top players in the country is one reason for the Saints to be excited about their chances in 2021. Opposite hitter Yanlis Feliz put together one of the best seasons in school history last year as a freshman when she was named a first team All-American. The 6-foot Dominican Republic native ranked second in the nation in kills per set (4.73), seventh in hitting percentage (.409), and eighth in total kills (530).
“Yanlis is a very good player and well deserved to have earned her recognition,” Soriano said. “When she arrived, I thought she was going to be an imposing person, due to the fact that she stood out in training because of her great strength, but once you get to know her more deeply you realize that she is a great girl with a big heart for what she does.”
Like Soriano, who played for the Peru national team, and Feliz, most of Seward County’s roster last season was made up of players from outside the United States. The program has been successful in recent years not only recruiting internationally but having a system in place that can support those students from the time they arrive in Kansas.
“It’s something we’ve been building,” Artamenko said. “Being able to recruit internationally and being able to support international students isn’t something that you can just do overnight, but (Tony) was able to leverage those advantages we built in and succeeded really well. If the next person can bring the same skills with being able to recruit international students to west Kansas, we’ll likely have the same potential successes.”
The Saints’ recent success has turned them into one of the best junior college volleyball programs in the country, and the potential is there to build on what they’ve already achieved. They’ll have to wait a little longer to make their next run, but those who have been there, like Soriano, already know what it takes to reach the ultimate goal of a national title.
“Whatever the circumstances, with new coaches and new players, we have to agree on what we want as a team so that the relationship between everyone works,” Soriano said. “So, we will be waiting for the new coach and the new players to come, with open arms and willing to give our best to make everyone happy. I’m sure we’ll have a great season and fight to bring the title home.”