WINCHESTER — The Umpqua Riverhawks are headed to the Northwest Athletic Conference volleyball championship tournament for the first time since 2012.
Umpqua (26-21 overall) plays No. 6-ranked Bellevue (34-8), the Northern Region champion, at 9 a.m. Thursday in the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center.
Over the course of the season, the Riverhawks came together to accomplish their primary goal. They worked hard to finish fourth in the Southern Region and earn a berth in the tournament.
On top of their team achievements, sophomore libero Kaysie Cornelio was named the NWAC's defensive player of the week and received first-team all-league honors. Sophomore Viviana Rodriguez was selected to the second team.
"We are so excited. We already got through our one goal and now every match matters," said UCC coach Lacy Pinard. "Umpqua is looked as an underdog since we haven't been gone to the NWACs in a few years."
The Riverhawks have had trouble with communication throughout the season, but the last couple of matches have made some strides. They ended the regular season last week with a sweep of Southwestern Oregon at home.
"They are just now showing their true potential as a team," said Pinard. "These girls are going to come out and build a strong volleyball identity. I'm super excited to have the opportunity to coach girls with great mentalities."
UCC is remaining optimistic despite a tough draw in the first round. Bellevue has four all-conference players: Audrey Saelens (first team), Kendle Valade-Nunez (first team), Shea O'Brien (second team) and Averi Dyer (second team).
"We've been prepared for the last four months to make it to this tournament," said UCC freshman Felicia Sparks, a Roseburg graduate.
The Riverhawks played Bellevue on Sept. 3, losing 21-25, 25-19, 15-11 at the Highline Tournament.
"Bellevue runs a fast offense, so we've really been working on fast recoveries and scrapping the ball in game-like situations," said Pinard.
UCC has remained focused on what its needs to do to advance in the tourney. The Riverhawks have a game plan and staying consistent is a key.
"We are really good at executing and putting the ball away, and getting out of tight situations," said Sparks. "The offense needs to take out the setter and work the lines."
The top hitters for UCC are freshman Olivia Gulliford (238 kills) and Rodriguez (220 kills).
On the defensive front, the Riverhawks are gearing up for what Bellevue can dish out.
"If we set hard on line and make sure we are all moving and talking that's where the game starts," said UCC sophomore Kortney Moore.
UCC doesn't lack team spirit. The mental game can be the biggest challenge in an important match and the Riverhawks don't plan on letting nerves get the best of them.
"We should remember that any team is beatable and not start off with a losing attitude," said Moore. "We need to come in thinking we can take on any team."
For UCC sophomore Cheyenne Chambers, the past couple of weeks have been a bittersweet experience. Chambers is out with an injury, but has remained supportive of her team the entire time.
Chambers said, "The best thing thing was to watch them finish and go all out."
If UCC wins its match against Bellevue, they'll play at 10 a.m. Friday against the winner of the Lower Columbia-Spokane match. If they lose, they play at 6:30 Thursday night.
Top-ranked and unbeaten Linn-Benton (39-0), the South champion, is the favorite. The Roadrunners of Albany open against Edmonds at 4:30 p.m. Thursday.