For the first time in seven seasons, the Northwest College volleyball team will have a new head coach roaming the sidelines.
Following the departure of Shaun Pohlman, now the head coach at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho, the Lady Trappers turn to interim coach Bethany Conde. Conde was an assistant under Pohlman last season and brings coaching experience at the high school and college levels. Practice began last week for the new-look Lady Trappers, and with an equal mix of freshman enthusiasm and sophomore experience, Conde said this season should be a competitive one.
“I’m really excited. The girls all came in ready to work,” Conde said. “They’ve all been very encouraging with each other, and you’re starting to see that chemistry develop.”
The week before official practices began, the Lady Trappers hosted a volleyball camp for players in the area, giving the team an opportunity to get to know one another in a more relaxed setting. When the real practices began last week, Conde noticed the team had already started to gel.
“Team chemistry is really important, and that’s why I kind of took a step back last week [the week of volleyball camp] and let them forge a bond on their own,” Conde explained. “They were able to interact and get to know each other’s personalities. I do think that made a difference, me stepping back and letting them form true relationships without forcing anything.”
“With the returning sophomores, I kind of knew what to expect, and they’re more familiar with the process,” Conde said. “But the freshmen that came in have really risen to the challenge. Their volleyball IQ is phenomenal; it’s more than I could have asked for at this point. That gives us the opportunity to work on the things we really need to work on versus the little things, because they’re already doing those. It’s really encouraging as a coach.”
The Lady Trappers return six sophomores from last year’s team, including setters Jess Ruffing, Kailee Becking and Demery Dean, middle blocker Tammy Maddock and outside hitters Shania Warren and Andjela Bublic.
“Jess Ruffing has really done a great job of stepping up,” Conde said. “Last year, you saw that leadership role in her. She stepped right into that leadership role as a freshman. She’s a great leader, but she’s also very positive, and that makes a difference, too. She’s very encouraging and a great motivator.”
Becking and Dean also bring a lot to the table in the setter position — a nice problem for a coach to have.
“We’re very experienced at that setter role, which is huge,” Conde said. “All three of them have done a great job, and right now, they’re all working for their positions. They all bring something to the team.”
The coach said she’s also been impressed early on with the play of Maddock, who she said has “come in as a whole new player from last year.”
“[Maddock] worked hard over the spring and summer workouts on her vertical,” Conde said. “She’s hitting the ball phenomenal. She’s put the work in, and she’s going to do some big things for us this season.”
New to the team this year are seven freshmen: Setter Lexi Brown, liberos Madyson Chavez and Geena Graf, middle blockers Caitlyn Costa and Alex Dehl, outside hitter Eirini Matsouka and libero/defensive specialist Mariah Norstrom.
Greece native Matsouka has been a welcome addition to the team, according to Conde.
“[Matsouka] is a very smart, all-around player,” the coach said. “She’s a great addition.”
Conde is also excited about Chavez and Graf at the libero position, praising the players’ volleyball IQ.
“[Chavez and Graf] see the game so well,” Conde said. “They’re doing things already that we had to teach last year — things we really had to work on, and they’re already doing it. You can tell that both girls come from a background of very competitive ball. They’re just great back there.”
Conde called Norstrom another great find, describing the freshman as “very coachable and willing to try whatever we ask her to do.”
Brown will provide a fourth option at the setter position, and was one of Pohlman’s recruits who chose to attend NWC despite the coaching change.
“[Brown] really liked the school and the players, so she wanted to continue coming here,” Conde said. “It’s very nice having that fourth setter there, we’re very set in that position. She’s able to work with three sophomores who have been through it, so it’s great for her to have those mentors at her position.”
The Lady Trappers will open their season Friday with a scrimmage at MSU Billings, and will follow that with an intra-squad scrimmage Saturday at 4 p.m. at Cabre Gym. On Friday, Aug. 24, the team travels to Casper for the Casper Invitational — the official start of the 2018 season.
As she prepares for the start of the season, Conde said the experience so far has been everything she’d hoped it would be.
“So far, it’s been really good,” she said. “I’ve been enjoying it.”
As for the team, Conde said it’s been an adjustment, but the players are buying into their new system.
“There is a little bit of a learning curve, even for the sophomores,” Conde said. “I push them, but they have to learn to work within themselves. You know as a player when you’re not blocking well or not hitting well. I can give you pointers, but you have to mentally figure out how to rise to the challenge. That’s kind of what I’m really working on with these girls, rising to the challenge. You have to push.”
One thing Conde has been impressed with is the team’s level of competitiveness, even with just a week of practice under its belt.
“I’m a very competitive person,” she said. “These girls have shown that they’re just as competitive, without having to coach that, which is awesome. There are certain things you can’t coach — they either have it or they don’t. These girls so far, they’re hustling, diving after balls. Even my sophomores, I’ve seem more hustle from them this year than I ever saw last year.”
“They’re playing very relaxed, they seem to be having fun,” she added. “There’s a great interaction between the freshmen and sophomores. [Assistant Coach Elisa] Vichi and myself just step back, and we’re like, “They didn’t do this last year. The sophomores are taking it to the next level, which makes the freshmen step up.”