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Powder Valley running back Case Olson, center, rushes to the right side in a game against Elgin on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. The Badgers are set to face St. Paul in the semifinals of the OSAA Class 1A state playoffs on Nov. 20 at Caldera High School in Bend.

LA GRANDE — Trips to Sioux City, Iowa, have become an annual affair for the Eastern Oregon University volleyball team.

The Mountaineers, for the eighth straight season, have earned a spot at the NAIA National Tournament. Eastern learned Monday, Nov. 15, that it would make its annual trip to the tournament as an automatic qualifier after finishing as the Cascade Collegiate Conference Tournament runner-up. EOU head coach Kaki McLean- Morehead, who is in her 15th season with the Mountaineers, has a hard time believing her team has become a permanent fixture at the national tournament.

“I just said to (assistant coach Malia Mills), ‘Can you believe we’ve been going to Iowa for eight years now?’” she said.

Eastern Oregon, which fell in the championship game of the conference tournament to Corban, enters the national tournament with a 25-7 record. McLean- Morehead said she likes the tournament format that puts the Mountaineers back on the court quicker.

“Years have differed a little bit where we have a break when it comes to not having an opening round and heading straight to Iowa,” she said. “Honestly, I’ve always thought it’s kind of nice to be able to play this weekend. Once you have that much time off, it makes it hard to get back into the groove, especially to play that many games at the national tournament.”

Leading the way for Eastern this season is middle hitter Cambree Scott with 302 kills. She and outside hitters Breanna Shaffer (289 kills) and Sade Williams (269 kills) create a dominant trio at the net. Scott is also the team’s defensive anchor, leading the Cascade Collegiate Conference with 1.25 blocks per set.

On the back line, true freshman Hailey Arritola is tops in the conference with 541 digs and headlines the team with 45 service aces. Freshman Alexis McMurtrey leads Eastern with 788 assists on the season, which is good for sixth in the conference.

Before the Mountaineers head to western Iowa, they have to take care of a first-round matchup at 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 20, in Quinn Coliseum with Columbia International University, of South Carolina. The Rams enter the contest with a 29-8 record on the season after taking the runner-up spot in the Appalachian Athletic Conference Tournament.

The Rams have a potent 1-2 punch at the net, with right-side hitter Kira Rymer, a 5-foot-11 sophomore, and outside hitter Cintia Lorena, a 6-foot-6 freshman from Brazil. Rymer leads Columbia International with 372 kills, while Lorena has 333. The Rams also have Jadaeya Morrell, a 6-foot outside hitter, and Mardi Scutchings, a 6-foot middle blocker.

“I don’t know a lot about them yet,” McLean-Morehead said. “I know they are big. They have some really physical international kids and it will be really interesting to see that level of play. I’m excited.”

The Rams are one of 11 teams in the tournament field that qualified for the first time. McLean-Morehead said having national tournament experience can be a blessing or a curse.

“I think for those kids that have been there for the last three years, they know what to expect and they know the level of play,” she said. “They know that they’ll have to bring it every night no matter the opponent. I also think there is something to be said for making it the first time and being excited and being a little naive and going for it.”

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