WEST PLAINS, Mo. — What a tournament run for the Western Nebraska Community College volleyball team at the NJCAA national tournament in West Plains, Missouri last weekend.

The Cougars concluded Saturday’s tournament play when they lost in the fifth-place game in a hard-fought and hard-fought game with Salt Lake Community College. The Cougars came up short in a five-setter and finished sixth in the national tournament, losing to the Bruins 25-15, 23-25, 25-21, 26-28, 15-12.

WNCC finished the season 34-5 on the season and was the highest result of any Region IX team at the tournament. Central Wyoming College finished seventh in the tournament after winning a five-setter win over Trinity Valley Community College in the 7th roundth-place contest while the other Region IX team, Northeastern Junior College, went 0-2.

In other games in the tournament, the New Mexico Military tied for ninth place in Utah State Eastern in four sets while Missouri State-West Plains swept Indian Hills into third place. Florida Southwestern clinched the tournament title when they defeated Miami Dade in four sets for their first national title.

When the all-tournament awards were announced, the Cougar’s Ale Meoni earned a spot on the 12-man team. Alicja Jaryszek from Central Wyoming was also a member.

Meoni said it’s an honor to be on the team but it wouldn’t be possible without her teammates.

“To be part of the all-tournament team at the Nationals is such an honor,” said the sophomore. “These are the best athletes in the nation and to be named among them is a big deal and I’m grateful to have had this opportunity. I couldn’t have done it without the support of Cougar Nation, my coaches and of course my teammates.”

Meoni said their performance was incredible not only today but in all tournaments and they left everything on the pitch.

“We worked so hard this weekend. We came out and gave everything in every game,” she said. “We had some struggles but we came through and still finished sixth in the nation, which is a huge achievement, even if it wasn’t what we were hoping for. There are many talented teams and players and we are with them all. I will always remember this team.”

Shanelle Martinez, who had 45 assists today, said the team played with a lot of heart and just fell short.

“The team played with heart today. The goal was for everything we’ve worked for this season to finally pay off,” Martinez said. “We are proud and not disappointed with the result. We left everything we had on the pitch. And yes, not everything went as we had hoped but it has been a privilege to play with this team and to be in the top 10 in the nation is a huge achievement.”

Alex Hernandez, who had a big day at center with eight kills, seven digs, 10 points and five assisted blocks, said she was proud of how the team played.

“I think the team played so well today,” said Hernandez, the third-year player from El Paso, Texas. “We played with so much heart and courage and never gave up. Everyone on and off the pitch gave their all and it was so much fun. I couldn’t be prouder of us.”

Martinez said sixth place at the nationals is nothing to sneeze at compared to the quality of the teams they’ve seen.

“The team should be very proud of how we did at the nationals and remember everything and all the sacrifices it took to get there,” she said. “The Cougars had a very successful season overall. It was a blessing and a privilege to be part of this team. My teammates are great players and I owe everything to them. They have made me a better player and I wish them all the best in their future.”

Hernandez, who was competing in her second national tournament after playing for the Cougars in April 2021, said her time with the national teams will be remembered.

“The team should be very proud of how we did at the nationals,” Hernandez said. “Even though we went 2-2, I honestly think we played some of the best volleyball games of the year. We played as hard as we could and that’s all you can really ask for.

“Personally, I think this was one of the best seasons I’ve ever played. I feel like I’ve grown so much this year as a player and as a leader. As a team, a 34-5 finish is such an achievement considering we’ve only lost to high-level teams. This team is so amazing and I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to play and grow with these talented, hard working girls. This is a season I will always remember.”

The Cougars gave everything they had on the court. The first set was close by the first 10 points as WNCC took a 9-7 lead. After that, the Bruins went on a 6-0 run to lead 13-9 and then went on another five-point run to lead 18-11. Salt Lake won the first set 25-15.

The second set was a series of runs. The two teams were tied at one, four, five, six, nine, 10 and 11. WNCC was 14-12 behind Salt Lake when they caught a big serve from Hernandez in which they served six points for a 19-14 lead and included three aces.

Salt Lake came back to reduce the lead to 21-19 and led 22-21. WNCC equalized with a missed serve, and then AK Chavez served two points for a 24-22 lead. WNCC won the set 25-23 after a Hernandez kill.

There were very few big service runs in the third set. WNCC had an 11-9 lead over a Martinez ace. Salt Lake came back and led 13-11 only to see the Cougars come back 17-16 and later 19-18. Salt Lake took a 20-19 lead, but WNCC got a sideout to equal it at 20-20. The Bruins won the third 25-21.

The fourth set went back to big service runs and it started with WNCC going 3-1 after two Jenna Curtis points, and then Hernandez with four straights with two aces for a 7-3 lead. The Cougars led 10-5 after Meoni had two points.

Salt Lake came back and led 12-11 on a four-point run. Curtis stopped the run with a kill and then had another kill for a 13-12 lead. Salt Lake tied it at 13, but two holds by Martinez put the Cougars 16-13.

Salt Lake came back to level the set at 16. WNCC led 19-18 when Meoni had a kill, and then Meoni had three points for a 23-18 lead. Salt Lake came back to level the set 24-24 and the Bruins were a point away from finishing the match 26-25 when the Cougars put up a big block for a point. Martinez then served the final two points as Erica Fava grabbed the final kill to give the Cougars the 28-26 win and force a fifth set.

The fifth set was back and forth, with neither team gaining more than a point lead during the single-figure game. WNCC led 9-8 as Salt Lake led 5-0, 13-9. WNCC got a sideout, going 13-11 and 14-12, but Salt Lake took the last point for the match winner.

WNCC had three players with double-digit kills. Curtis and Fava each had a double-double. Curtis had 12 kills and 15 digs. Curtis also had nine points and three aces while Fava had 10 kills, 11 digs and four points.

Meoni led the team with 15 kills while also having nine digs, four block assists and eight points, while Hernandez had eight kills, seven digs, five block assists, 10 points and four aces.

WNCC also received nine kills and five digs from Emmalei Mapu; three kills, eight digs, six points, and 45 set assists from Martinez; three digs by Lexi Keoho; and 17 excavations, four set templates and five points by AK Chavez.

The only thing that stood out was the support they had. During the tournament, Martinez’s mother brought down a colorful ball with a smiley face on it. Martinez said the team named it Buddy Junior after the cougar mascot’s name. Martinez said she will cherish her freshman year.

“My mother carried this colorful ball with her all the way to the national teams and gave it to me as a gift. Me and the team named the ball Buddy Junior because our WNCC name is Cougar Buddy,” Martinez said. “We kept him on the sidelines for encouragement and he has a lucky charm.

“Overall, I had a great season. The experience of playing with my teammates and going as far as we have has been a blessing. Knowing how much work I and my teammates put into the season makes me so proud. I was able to form lifelong relationships with my team, which I can now call my family. I’ll use the skills and IQ I’ve learned this season to move up to every team I’m on to not only improve myself but my future teammates as well.”