Practice is already underway for the 2019 Northwest College volleyball season, and first-year head coach Valerie Rivera likes what she sees out of this year’s roster so far.
“Things are going well, I’m excited just to have the girls finally here,” Rivera said. “We’ve had them in the gym and in the weight room right away, and they’re just embracing everything. They’re doing what they need to do, and it’s just fun to see them play volleyball and watch them take direction.”
The Lady Trappers return four players from a team that went 17-12 last season, including liberos Geena Graf and Madyson Chavez, outside hitter Eirini Matsouka and middle blocker Caitlyn Costa. Rivera had a chance to meet with the returners last spring during her on-campus interview, and is confident the four will provide the leadership needed for a team loaded with first-year players.
“All four of them are really strong leaders, especially Mady [Chavez] right now — she’s really the one that sticks out to me,” Rivera said. “She’s encouraging the freshmen, she’s encouraging her teammates throughout drills when they hit a point where they’re struggling. She’s a strong, encouraging voice.”
Matsouka and Costa are on the quiet side, preferring to lead by example.
“Those two are providing leadership in the weight room, leadership in the gym,” Rivera said. “They want the freshmen to feel comfortable. And not only am I new to the freshmen, I’m new to the sophomores as well — coming in and trying to implement and develop a new culture here. Those four will be instrumental in helping with that.”
The Lady Trappers lost six players to graduation from last year’s roster, including setter Jess Ruffing and All Region IX North selections Tammy Maddock and Shania Warren. Big shoes to fill to be sure, but with nine talented recruits on the roster, Rivera said the team will be in good shape.
Kaylie Critchfield, a setter from Evanston, is just one of the recruits Rivera is expecting big things from this season.
“Kaylie to me has the mindset of a setter, it’s just there,” Rivera said. “She has that extra little characteristic to her, she can see the plays as they are developing. I just love that in a setter. You can’t really teach a setter to anticipate every change or every movement, but she just has it. She’s willing to work, and I’m excited for her.”
Other recruits include Mollee Krum, a middle from Worden, Montana, and outside hitter Sidney Ostergaard from Heber City, Utah.
“Mollee is athletic — when you see her in our gym, she just jumps and brings so much power,” Rivera said. “I’m so excited to see what she’s going to do. If she hits girls in the face, she’s going to knock them out — that’s how much power she has. I got goosebumps watching her go up and swing on a ball, because she’s swinging so hard. It’s crazy to see at this level a kid with this much raw talent.”
Ostergaard was a Class 5A All-State honorable mention selection her senior year, and Rivera said it was Ostergaard’s competitiveness that stood out to her.
“She [Ostergaard] is so competitive, and I love it — When I was recruiting her, she was just so excited to get here, because she wants to compete at the next level, she wants to challenge herself and make herself better. She’s learning so much from Eirini [Matsouka], our other outside. The two of them are learning from each other.”
Two local players are also poised to make their mark on the court for NWC — former Lady Panthers Devon Curtis and Natalie Ostermiller.
“Devon Curtis was a little bit of a late addition to us, but this kid is so willing to learn,” Rivera said. “She comes in every day, and is willing to make any adjustment. If I correct her, she immediately adapts. I love that about her.”
The NWC volleyball program has been in a constant state of flux the last few seasons, especially at the head coach position — Rivera is the team’s third coach in as many seasons, and is hoping to provide some much-needed stability. Despite the turmoil at the top, the Lady Trappers finished a respectable 17-12 overall, 11-4 in conference last season, culminating in a three-set upset of heavily-favored Otero College in the opening round of the Region IX Tournament. With four solid returners and a talented recruiting class, Rivera said team chemistry, coupled with getting the team to buy in early, will be key.
“Just having the team in the gym for practices this week, it’s very apparent they trust each other already, and I think they can only grow in their relationships — not only with themselves, but amongst themselves and with me as their coach. It’s just amazing to me that they’ve bonded so quickly. That doesn’t always happen. It’s a good sign that things are only going to get better.”
As for what she’s gleaned from the first few days of practice, Rivera said the mindset is there for the team to compete, despite the team’s youth and inexperience.
“I love the competitiveness we have in this group, and the love they have for the game,” Rivera said. “You can’t ask for more as a coach. And they challenge me as a coach. They want to do something different, something out of the box to make us better. This region isn’t going to let us just walk in and win. It’s going to be a dogfight every single night with every one of the teams in our region.”
The Lady Trappers open the 2019 season against Miles Community College at the Volleyball Classic in Casper Friday, Aug. 23.