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Pima volleyball to play in program’s first national tournament

Dan Bithell and the Pima Volleyball team. (Stephanie Van Latum/Pima College)

The Pima Community College volleyball team will compete in the first national tournament in program history after a regular season defined by adversity and setbacks.

The conference season was especially unique for the Aztecs because the other Division II teams opted out of the season due to COVID-19 protocols, leaving Pima to solely play Division I opponents.

By the close of a shortened regular season that was irregular at best, the Aztecs were 0-7 and had only won three out of 24 sets.

Pima volleyball head coach Dan Bithell thinks that the competition the Aztecs had to play against in the regular season was grueling on the team.

“We have a mixed conference: Division I and Division II, so we play those teams (Division I) every year, but normally it’s a small percentage of our schedule,” said Bithell.  “Think of it like you play a bunch of Division IIs, and maybe you find a little more success or maybe you feel better about your ability to perform.

“Then you play a Division I and maybe the result doesn’t go your way, or if you’ve had some momentum maybe the result does go your way, and obviously that’s a great thing, but only playing the Division I teams was really, really difficult.”

Even though the matches didn’t go in favor of the Aztecs, playing only Division I teams in the regular season helped the team prepare and gain confidence going into the postseason.

“It was tough for us not seeing the results go our way when we were doing a lot of good things,” Bithell said. “Ultimately, being able to get through that and process that, and realize that we did a lot of good things, and unfortunately points and matches didn’t come our way.

“Once we understood that, it was a huge confidence win for us.”

Dan Bithell  in a coaching moment with the Pima volleyball team. (Stephanie Van Latum/Pima College)

Because of the same COVID-19 protocols that influenced the regular season, the Aztecs were one of only four teams that qualified for the NJCAA Division II South Central District playoffs .

The confidence gained from playing upper division teams all season was noticeable in the district playoffs in which the Aztecs won their first match of the season, defeating 17th-ranked Dallas College-Brookhaven.

The turning point of the season for the Aztecs came early in the first set against the previously unbeaten Brookhaven team. It was there, after a regular season filled with disappointment and what-ifs, that the team started leaving everything on the court. 

“Honestly, I think it happened at the very beginning,” said Bithell. “We had a good idea of what we wanted to do against Brookhaven, we knew they were a good team, they were undefeated on their season.

“Pretty early we flipped that confidence switch, and just said, ‘You know what? This obviously feels good winning points, and we’re going to keep working hard.’”

Dan Bithell coaches as the Pima volleyball team looks on. (Stephanie Van Latum/Pima College)

After sweeping Brookhaven in three straight sets, the Aztecs faced a tough Northeastern Oklahoma A&M team in which they lost the first set before battling back and narrowly winning three straight sets to win the match.

“The road got tougher, and we continued to respond to the NEO team, who was more dynamic and athletic, they pushed on us a little bit more and the results kind of show that,” said Bithell. 

After Northeastern Oklahoma A&M defeated Dallas College-Eastfield in the loser bracket round, the Aztecs played them again in the district championship game. In a tough match, Pima was able to narrowly achieve victory in the fifth tie-breaking set and bring the district title trophy home to Tucson. 

Pima Volleyball team poses with the district championship trophy. (Dan Bithell/Pima Volleyball)

“We beat them in four the first time, and then we squeaked one out in five the second time,” said Bithell. “I think we got better through the weekend, but it started pretty quickly where we believed we are where we need to be right now, and we’re going to keep getting better.”

The win qualified the Aztecs for the NJCAA Division II National Tournament. The No. 13-seeded Aztecs (3-7) play No. 4 seed Johnson County (Kansas) Community College (23-2) on Tuesday at 1:00 p.m. Tucson time in the first round at the Alliant Energy Powerhouse Arena in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 

Bithell credits the historical achievement of making the national tournament to a balanced team effort but was especially impressed with standout performances in the district tournament from sophomore libero Aydalis Felix (Rincon/University) and sophomore outside hitters Eve Pearson (Canyon del Oro), and Bergen Campbell. 

Aydalis Felix had an unbelievable weekend. I don’t think that she ever was put under pressure in terms of serve reception,” said Bithell. “She passed a lot of balls and controlled a lot of things for us, and she’s certainly just a fighter and a leader on the court for us so we certainly wouldn’t have had as much success without her.

“I think our two sophomore outside hitters Bergen Campbell and Eve Pearson had a terrific start to the weekend. The outside hitter position has a lot of weight on their shoulders in terms of scoring load and being able to pass and attack, and I thought they really set the tone for us through the weekend.”

Bithell also credited freshman outside hitter Andrea Vigil-German (Ironwood Ridge) for her progression on offense during the district playoffs.

“As things went on, one of our freshmen, Andrea Vigil-German really stepped up and had a terrific offensive weekend for us, and helped us in our second or third matches,” said Bithell. “I definitely don’t think we would have found as much success without her finding a different gear over the weekend.”

As the Aztecs prepare for the program’s first national tournament, Bithell is optimistic about the future of the program.

“The COVID situation puts its stamp on this a little bit, in that we have the possibility of having a few kids come back for an extra year,” said Bithell.  “But regardless of one or two of our sophomores now being able to stay, I’m super excited about our future, because a lot of our freshmen are contributing right now.”

“We have some great kids coming in that are going to hopefully fill the spots that are vacated by the sophomores that leave, so I’m super optimistic about the fall.”

No matter how this season ends for the Pima volleyball program, one thing is certain: the Aztecs historic postseason run can only give the returning players something inspiring to build on next season.

“Being able to say that they’re the first group that has taken their team to nationals is going to be a huge confidence boost for them next year,” Bithell said.

As Bithell and the Aztecs have learned from a season filled with uncertainty and doubt, a little bit of confidence may be all that is needed to begin achieving success.

Follow Pima volleyball on Twitter: @PimaVolleyball

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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com writing intern Kevin Murphy was born and raised in Tucson, and has followed Arizona Wildcats athletics since childhood.  He is currently attending Pima Community College where he writes for the Aztec Press. Next semester he will be attending the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU where he will work towards a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies.

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