Target on the T-Wolves: Blue Mountain prepares NWAACC-title defense

<p>BMCC coach Dave Baty serves the ball while praticing with the volleyball team while preparing for the NWAACC tournament on Tuesday in Pendleton.</p>

PENDLETON — The only legal wolf hunt in Oregon this weekend will take place on the volleyball courts at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham.

The NWAACC Championships begin Thursday with the No. 1 Blue Mountain Community College Timberwolves wearing a target on their backs big enough to support the coaches poll’s top ranking all season long.

Only two teams in the NWAACC (Olympic and Bellevue)?have defeated the T-Wolves this season as they rolled to a 37-5 record with 107 sets won and only 27 lost.

Also adding ammo to the pre-game speeches their opponents will hear is BMCC’s recent stranglehold on the NWAACC. The T-Wolves are gunning for their third title in four seasons, and second in a row.

This season the T-Wolves pulled off their second-straight undefeated run through the East Region while ranking second in the NWAACC?in hitting percentage (.267) and third in kills (854).

Playing in a region that produced the top three teams at the NWAACC?tournament last season, the T-Wolves were seventh in opponents’ hitting percentage (.109) and fourth in blocks per game (2.05).

With a pair of freshmen setters they ranked second in assists per game (11.33).

“I’ve never played on a team that no matter what pass I?got I’ve had a hitter up ready to kill the ball,”?said setter Samantha Odren. “Everyone is doing amazing and everything I?throw up, they make it look good.”

But those are regular season statistics —?which is exactly where BMCC?coach Dave Baty is leaving them.

“Anybody can beat anybody,”?he said. “The statistics don’t matter and everybody is 0-0.”

Baty and assistant coach Scott Carswell are the only constants from both of the first two title runs — an unavoidable reality of junior college athletics — but they have four sophomores returning from last season’s championship.

Outside hitter Kendra De Hoog, who scored the last kill of 2012’s final match, leads the T-Wolves with 186 kills this season. She is joined at the net by sophomore middle blocker Crystal Schmidt (185 kills) and outside hitter Kensey Mix (81 kills, 47 blocks).

Completing the veteran group is libero Piper Cantrell. She led the team by a wide margin with 336 digs that was the most in the NWAACC.

“I’ve been convinced all season long she’s the best libero in the northwest,”?Baty said.

The Timberwolves have maintained that no NWAACC team truly ever defends a title since so many new faces take the court each season. It’s those now seasoned freshmen that have the team feeling confident as they prepare to begin their tournament run.

“We have a really solid group of girls that can just play any position,” Schmidt said, adding that she’s seen the maturity come with the wins. “When you’re grinding down to the last couple points in the fifth game of 15, then there’s some people that get a little antsy. But now we really have grown as one, we’ve become one.”

The Timberwolves open the bracket Thursday at 2 p.m. against Clark Community College. It’s a team they haven’t faced this season, which they see as a positive.

“It’s definitely nice to have someone new because we don’t know, so we have to come out strong because you never know what they can give you,” Odren said.

“(Clark) hits the ball pretty well from the middle,” Baty said of his film review. “They’ve got a couple tall kids but I?think we’ll ball handle a little better than they will. We like our chances. If we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing on our side of the net, I like our chances.”

Looking forward in the bracket — something Baty said coaches are strongly discouraging players to do — the T-Wolves could be seeing some more familiar foes.

Bellevue stands as a likely quarterfinals matchup, while Olympic, Walla Walla and Spokane are all possibilities in the semifinals.

That assumes the T-Wolves take care of business, of course.

“I told the girls that I?believe in my heart that if all 16 teams that are at the tournament play their best, I?believe that (we’ll) win,” Baty said. “I could be wrong, but that’s what I?believe.”

Baty isn’t leaning on talent alone to lift the T-Wolves to the title. Since their last game of the regular season on Nov. 8, the BMCC?coaching staff has been busy implementing some surprises for teams studying the tape.

“There’s film on us out there. You need to be willing, and clearly (the players are) athletic enough. I?just have to be smart enough of a coach to show them some different things,”?Baty said.

Schmidt said she’s excited to roll out the new look.

“I?feel like a whole new team,”?she said. “When people go down and watch us or play against us at NWAACCs, they’re not going to know that we’re BMCC. We’re a totally different style of BMCC.

“We’re trying to run a different tempo, different options within the game itself, so it’s going to be a surprise seeing us there.”

To keep players fresh during the long layoff, Baty organized an alumni game that featured several players from the past two BMCC?championship teams.

“We were expecting to have a tough game and they definitely gave it because they’re still young, they’re not 30-year-olds coming back and playing,” Odren said. “It was definitely a competition.”

Keeping excitement high hasn’t been a problem either. With some players on the roster that came from sub-par high school programs, keeping emotions in check has been the bigger issue.

“I?won’t forget the first tournament that we played this year was at Chemeketa and we swept and won that one,”?Baty said. “And our setter, Samantha, she was jumping up and down and showing it, and we were like, ‘Hey, hey, hey, whoa. We’re going to jump up and down at the end of the year. This is really fun and we love it ... but we’ll rush the floor at the end of the season if we get a chance to. That’s when you do those kind of things.’ ”

The T-Wolves are confident that if they continue to play their brand of volleyball — whatever that may look like this weekend — they’ll get that chance.

“We’re just going to play, and play to win,” Schmidt said.

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Contact Matt Entrup at mentrup@eastoregonian.com or (541)?966-0838.

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