University of Jamestown's first season of Great Plains Athletic Conference competition should serve the Jimmie women's volleyball team well this week in Sioux City, Iowa.
The 24th-ranked Jimmies are one of six GPAC teams at this year's 32-team NAIA national championship final site. Jamestown begins pool play today, Nov. 27, at 3 p.m. facing 10th-ranked Southern Oregon at Sioux City's Tyson Events Center.
Jamestown will be vying for a national championship along with conference rivals Morningside College, Midland University, Dordt College, Hastings College and Northwestern College.
"This is why being in the GPAC is important," said Jimmie women's volleyball coach Jon Hegerle. "We've played a number of teams in our conference that are of the national-caliber level and we know what to expect.
"We're pretty excited," Hegerle added. "I think there's some nervous energy, but we've been through that before."
The Jimmies (22-8) are competing in national tournament pool play for a third straight season, having advanced to the tournament's 16-team elimination bracket for the first time in program history in 2017. Along with today's opponent, Southern Oregon (26-3), the Jimmies will face seventh-ranked Viterbo (Wisc.) at 2 p.m. on Nov. 28 and Saint Xavier (Ill.) at 2 p.m. on Nov. 29.
The top two teams from each of the eight, four-team pools will advance to the elimination round of 16 beginning Nov. 30. Viterbo (29-6), a former North Star Athletic Association rival, knocked Jamestown out of last year's national tournament in the round of 16.
Jamestown has had the eventual national champion in its pool in each of the past two tournaments: Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) in 2017 and the GPAC's Hastings (Neb.) in 2016. Fun fact: Dordt advanced to the 2017 final against Lindsey Wilson.
"The thing I like about it is you get to play three matches, regardless," Hegerle said. "We'll be focusing on one match at a time. Every team here is good and we have three tough teams to play."
It starts today against the Raiders of Southern Oregon, who rank fifth in the NAIA in hitting percentage at .284. The Raiders are led up front by a pair of 6-foot-2 athletes in sophomore middle Makayla Hoyt (.397 hitting percentage) and Taylor Ristvedt (.353). Ristvedt has tallied 332 kills on the campaign, while Hoyt has found the floor for the Cascade Collegiate Conference champions 277 times.
The Raiders, appearing in their 10th national tournament and first since 2015, haven't played since defeating 11th-ranked Eastern Oregon 3-1 in the Cascade Conference Tournament championship on Nov. 10. Hegerle said first-ball contact will most likely play a large role in the Jimmies finding success and keeping the Raiders off balance.
"We've watched a couple matches on them and they look like a pretty good team on film. They've got a lot of weapons," Hegerle said. "What it's going to come down to for us is if they're in system we're in trouble. So keeping them out of system will be a big help, and blocking."
The Jimmies rank ninth in the NAIA in blocks per set at 2.46, led by 6-foot junior middle Britta Knudson (1.32). Knudson's 200 kills leads the team, with right sides Isabel Wedell (199 kills) and Kennedy Conzemius (192) close behind.
The Jimmies also boast GPAC libero of the year Julina Niemeier and her career-high 601 digs. Niemeier, a senior, is sixth all-time at UJ with 1,464 career digs and would need 103 more at the national tournament to surpass Krista Kuivinen for fifth all time.
Jamestown defeated Haskell Indian Nations 3-0 in the NAIA national championship opening round on Nov. 17 at Harold Newman Arena to punch its ticket back to Sioux City.
"At this point of the season there's not a lot of major adjustments you can make," Hegerle said. "It's about what we can do on our side-passing, serving, defending-and we're excited about the opportunity."