It all came down to this moment. Rylee Moseman served before Highland Community College’s Jenna Pfau returned an off-speed attack. Nyah Alexander recorded a dig and on the right side, Moseman set up Hannah Brisco, who spiked the volleyball down the line for the tournament-clinching score.
The Region VI Volleyball Plains District B tournament championship last Friday actually led to the National tournament for the first time, and Neosho Community College’s volleyball program had made it. For the first time in NCCC’s 44-year volleyball history since it began in 1977, the program has advanced to the National tournament.
“It’s been exciting. And I think all the parents just kept saying, ‘Who would have thought this group of freshman would be the ones to take us to Nationals?’ because you know it’s been an unprecedented season with COVID and all the challenges it has brought and our season getting moved from the fall to the spring was a challenge in of itself,’” first-year NCCC head coach Marisa Compton said. “I think actually for us it was a big blessing because me getting to take over the program in July and getting the semester to kind of implement our system and get a chance to train all of our freshman for a semester was huge for us.”
Signs of a special season
That acclimation period can’t be overstated. Because of the changes the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference mandated due to COVID-19, NCCC played 20 Conference games this year as opposed to 10 in a normal year.
The Panthers also had a limited number of players with just eight freshmen and one sophomore. Taking all that into consideration, NCCC was ranked eighth in the KJCCC East, but vaulted to the top, ending up in third and reaching the perch of the National tourney.
“For them to accomplish what they did is pretty amazing, and I think it shows how much the girls bought into what we’re doing,” Compton said. “And they just worked hard all year long. That championship match against Highland, our girls just showed a lot of grit and just gutted out that match. They basically left everything they had and fought as hard as they could to finish that match off.”
That type of effort was a trend from the get-go. The Panthers started out Conference play 6-0, beating then-ranked teams such as Cowley, Kansas City Kansas and Fort Scott.
It was a sign that the season could be a special one.
“That was kind of the first time I realized what this group was capable of,” Compton said.
Neosho went on to go 8-2 through the end of February. But between March 1 and March 11, NCCC lost to Fort Scott, Cowley, Kansas City Kansas and Coffeyville – the longest losing streak of the year. Still, the Panthers regrouped and beat Labette before winning 3-2 against a top-ranked Highland team on March 15 at home. That was a turning point in the season.
“I think that’s maybe the moment they realized how good they are,” Compton said. “It was one of those things, when you are as young as you are, you kind of have so many ups and downs. I’d seen us do some really great things. And it just depended on if those freshmen could live up to the moment, and they did and competed. And I think that that’s also a bonus of having freshmen – they don’t know any better because they haven’t been through it. I think that allows them to play free and they just had fun and competed. I told them, ‘This is it. It’s now or never.’ I was like, ‘You guys have worked hard all year long, so go out and enjoy playing. Just get after it and compete and see where we go.’”
They were certainly focused and competing at a high level, going 6-2 from March 12 to March 31. In that stretch, freshman Libero Brooklyn Strobel earned KJCCC Division II Volleyball Defensive Player of the Week for Week 9, recording 69 total digs and averaging five digs per set with just one receiving error in 14 sets. At the time, she was seventh in the nation in digs; she is currently ranked third.
“We played really good defensively. I think we would frustrate teams defensively and the girls just went hard all the time. People had to work to beat us,” Compton said.
What makes the engine go
Strobel has been an anchor on defense all year. She began her NCCC career in the spring of 2020, as Compton recruited her because of her high volleyball IQ and instincts that are difficult to teach. Another skill that Strobel has is her serve-receive ability, an attribute Compton knew would be key throughout the year.
The digs highlight the skill set, as she is ranked in the top 10 with 460 digs and an average of 4.95 digs per set (fifth in the nation). But Strobel is also eighth in the Conference in service aces with 24.
Freshman middle blocker Hannah Brisco was brought in because of her underrated athleticism, using her heavy arms and jumping skills. A bit undersized at 5’9,” Compton saw innate traits that she could bring out with the right coaching formula.
Her potential turned into productivity, as Brisco is eighth in service aces with 31, seventh in block assists with 65, and 10th in total blocks in the nation with 69. Brisco is also 11th in the nation in points with 336.5.
How it all started
For Compton, recruiting includes watching players in club play and in high school, inviting players to camps during their upperclassmen years, and utilizing connections with high school coaches and former players who are familiar with the Neosho program. Because of COVID-19 and the circumstances, Compton infused the roster with talented freshman.
For Strobel, a 5’5” player out of Andover Central High School, the Libero was first-team All-State for three years. As a sophomore, Strobel was the Libero for an Andover team that placed third in Class 5A State in 2016 for the first time in school history.
Strobel mirrored her two older sisters who played volleyball – one is Taryn Strobel, an assistant coach for NCCC who played for the Panthers in 2015-16. Strobel also played on the ICT Mavs in Wichita, and that team played against top talent all around the nation.
Strobel sharpened her skills in high school and because of the connection with her sister, Compton already had an eye out for her. Strobel spurned a couple of Division I and II offers and made the decision to attend NCCC in the spring of 2020.
“I knew Compton, and I knew she was willing to take me in and help me develop into a better player to where I can go play at a higher level. I knew coming here, it would be the best option to be not only the best player, but to become a better person as well,” Strobel said. “It’s really awesome that this is Coach Compton’s first year as a head coach and she took a team of basically nine freshmen and one sophomore to Nationals. And we had a complete underdog story this season. And I think it’s something that you don’t come across often, and it’s a really good opportunity for us.”
Brisco, who went to Eisenhower High School in Goddard and played against Strobel, was first-team All-League as a senior. Her development extended into the Shockwave Volleyball Academy in Wichita where some of her teams advanced to Nationals.
Compton took significant notice of her. Once the pitch from Compton to Brisco was made, it was an easy choice, even after offers from other D-II and JuCo colleges.
“I just really liked the school. It was really welcoming,” Brisco said. “It just felt like I got along with the coaches here and they were just people I could see playing for and just pushing me to be the best player I could be.”
Those two players, along with six other freshmen, were beneficiaries of having the fall semester to hone their talents when the NJCCC pushed back the season to the winter because of COVID-19. That extra time to prepare was an advantage.
“I think everybody’s has stepped up in different times this season in games and different times,” Compton said.
Freshman middle blocker McKinley Pruitt is one of those players, stepping up, executing blocks, and scoring points. Pruitt, who has been battling lower leg tightness all year, is sixth in block assists with 68 and eighth in the nation in total blocks with 76.
Sophomore Libero Nyah Alexander upped her defensive prowess in the District tournament. She even ran into a stair railing trying to save a ball against Cowley, and has been diving for loose balls all year. Her energy is also apparent as she uses her loud vocal leadership after every successful play.
That energy from the leader is what galvanized the entire team to play well, including freshman middle blocker Samantha Johnson, freshman defensive specialist Kinley Poynter, freshman outside hitter Riley Kallevig, freshman right-side hitter Rylee Moseman, and freshman outside hitter Jolene Tidwell, all of whom have made big plays in the 16-8 , historical season.
Johnson is 14th in blocks with 64 and 10th in the nation in block assists with 62; Kallevig is 21st in digs with 285 and 29th in the nation in digs per set at 3.06; Moseman is second in assists with 871 and sixth in the nation in assists per set with 9.37; Tidwell is 19th in services aces with 28 and 24th in the nation in kills with 228; and Alexander is 41st in digs with 226 and 59th in the nation in digs per set at 2.43.
Team manager Jada Potter, who played on the team in 2019, has a propensity for leadership as well.
NCCC (16-8, 13-7) as a No. 12 seed played No. 5 Kirkwood in the National tourney in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Tuesday. That story will be published later this week.
“We’re just all excited. It’s a really fun thing to be a part of, and we’re all really close so we are excited to go to play together,” Brisco said.