At long last, the inaugural season has finally arrived for coach Allison Burchyett and the Northwest volleyball program.
Although the Rangers worked in some exhibition matches last fall, the regular season was pushed back to the spring for all NJCAA programs due to the effects of COVID-19. When Northwest takes the court later this month, every match will officially count.
"We're just excited to finally get things going," Burchyett said. "Our team has worked hard throughout the fall and they are all eager to finally play in some matches that count toward the history of our program."
Northwest played a total of four exhibitions in the fall, including two in front of a limited, but enthusiastic crowd at Howard Coliseum on October 31. In one of those matches, the Rangers picked up an unofficial 3-2 victory against Freed-Hardeman, rallying from a 2-0 deficit.
Despite facing some tough hurdles to close out the fall, Burchyett says the ups and downs have made her team better and more prepared as the spring arrives.
"I was proud of our team's resilience," Burchyett said. "They faced obstacles just like everyone else did and we were wondering who could play what position, who would be available and who we would need to shuffle around. They were positive and encouraging of each other the entire time. We certainly would like a win every time we play, but there's going to be a learning curve and moving forward, we're going to take every practice and every match as an opportunity to improve and embrace what happens."
One area that impressed Burchyett was the play of her middle unit, most notably Chariah Mabry and Kapria Manning.
"It's no secret that's an area we will go to," Burchyett said. "They have to be willing to step up and remain healthy throughout the season in order to keep producing. Our setters have to be a little more competitive and more consistent. (But) they needed to see that fall competition to know what they were needing to do, so I know they will work hard to improve. Our back players and liberos need to see that the level of play will increase, but it is not out of their realm to be competitive with the teams we play season."
Despite the need for improvement in some areas, Burchyett says she feels confident that everyone will improve as the regular season goes on.
"I think all of our players needed to see game speed and know how to come back after being off for a few weeks," Burchyett said. "Our team is young so they will be able to recover quickly. It has been a challenge for everyone, but I have been proud of our team for the way they have handled everything so far."
As for the level of competition, Northwest will be in unchartered territory throughout the season as a new program facing a slew of established talent outside of the Magnolia State. Several tournaments and neutral-site matches are peppered throughout the schedule, most notably with tournaments at Pensacola State to close out January and an invitational at Itawamba on Sunday, February 21. Thankfully, the Rangers did at least get a good look at two of their regular opponents and future in-state rivals - Itawamba and Pearl River. Northwest lost two matches to ICC in straight sets but competed closely in the first matchup against the Indians on October 31.
"Most of the players at ICC or Pearl River I have either coached or seen play at the high school level," Burchyett said. "We needed to see that competition in the fall to determine what level we were on as a team, and the girls needed to gauge where they were individually and what specific areas they needed to improve. It's certainly within their reach to do that as we enter the regular season." While Burchyett knows her team will face some adversity this season, her overall goal will be building a competitive culture and laying the foundation for future squads to build upon. "We want to begin the culture that we want to see here for years to come," Burchyett said. "In order to do that, we have to stay together, be good teammates and be willing to learn and grow together, both as student-athletes and individuals. I want them to have a sense of pride to know that they are the beginning, but not the end. This won't be something where you play for two years and never come back. This is going to be a program that they can be proud of as an alumnus and something that they will want to come back and watch, or come back and contribute wherever and however they can."
Northwest unofficially kicks off the season against Bevill State, Snead State and Wallace State-Hanceville in a slate of neutral-site exhibitions at Itawamba on Saturday, January 16. The Rangers' first regular season contests will come on the road in a pair of matches against Pearl River and Coastal Alabama-East on Saturday, January 23 in Poplarville.
Select matches will be carried live all season on nwccrangers.com/watch and all schedule updates will be posted on nwccrangers.com.