CHANUTE, Kan. — Don’t sleep on Neosho County Community College’s volleyball team.
The Panthers won their first district title this year with a team full of first-year players, including nine freshmen and one sophomore, while also playing under a first-year head coach. Neosho County is about to make its first-ever appearance in the NJCAA-DII tournament on Tuesday (Apr. 13).
“It’s a crazy feeling, knowing all of our hard work has paid off to get us to this point,” Neosho County freshman McKinley Pruitt said.
But how do you plan a trip to somewhere you’ve never been? A place where no one expected you to be.
“Like we definitely shocked a lot of people, beating the people who usually beat us,” Neosho County sophomore Nyah Alexander said.
A banner hasn’t been put up in Neosho County’s home gym in Chanute, Kan., in nearly 20 years. It was a banner earned from the Panthers winning their conference.
You can call them underdogs, you can say they’re outsized — maybe even outnumbered — but don’t count them out. It’s been a year of firsts with nine first-year players and a first-year head coach that won their first district title ever to punch their ticket to the national tournament by upsetting top-seeded Highlands.
“We definitely had the underdog story coming in,” Neosho County freshman Brooklyn Strobel said. “They picked us eighth to finish in the conference this season, and we finished third and won districts over the 15th seed.”
Neosho County head coach Marisa Compton may be in her first year as head coach, but this isn’t her first year with the program. Compton served as an assistant with the Panthers for five seasons before taking the head coaching role. She also played for the Panthers volleyball team. But something about this year has been just a little more special.
“Being freshmen you don’t know any better than when you’re sophomores and you’ve played in the conference, and you kind of know what to expect,” Compton said. “Sometimes I think they’re lack of experience was probably a positive this year.”
When asked what it would mean to return home and have a banner on the wall to commemorate winning a national championship, Strobel summed it up with the mindset her team has carried throughout the entire season.
“We had this motto for the season, ‘Why not us?'” she said. “You know, ‘Why can’t it be us? Why can’t we beat this team?’ And that’s just where we’ve carried this this whole time. I would look [at the banner] and be like, ‘That was us, and we did that because why not?'”
Neosho County enters the tournament as the No. 12 seed and will play No. 5 Kirkwood Community College in the opening round at 3 p.m. CST Tuesday (Apr. 13) in Cedar Rapids, IA. If Neosho County wins its first game, the Panthers would then play the winner of No. 13 Pima Community College and No. 4 Johnson County Community College later the same day in the second round at 7 p.m. CST.
Johnson County is a team the Panthers faced twice already this season, having lost both games. But if Neosho County can get out of the first round and see Johnson County for a third time, the Panthers like their chances because as they say it’s tough to beat the same team three times.