Mountaineers volleyball remains in the mix within the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) with a 12-10 overall record and an even 7-7 tally in conference play.
The young squad, featuring 11 freshmen and sophomores on their roster of 17, was picked to finish sixth in the RMAC out of the 15 total teams and has matched expectations thus far. The Mountaineers sit in sole possession of sixth place with four games to go. The top eight teams in the RMAC compete in the conference tournament after an 18-game conference season. The tournament’s winner receives an automatic bid to the Division-II NCAA Championships, featuring 16 teams.
In 2020 the Mountaineers finished sixth out of the 14 competing RMAC teams, going 6-7 in the RMAC (6-8) in a truncated season played in the spring. The Mountaineers made the conference tournament for the first time since 2015 but were bested in the first round by the Orediggers Colorado School of Mines, who went on to win the conference championship.
Four teams have dominated the RMAC landscape this season, including Metro State University Denver (14-0 RMAC, 20-2 overall), the No. 1 team within the RMAC and all of Division-II. Mountaineers will play Metro this Friday in Paul Wright Gym. Mines (no. 21 nationally), Colorado Mesa (just outside the top 25) and Regis University (No. 24) currently share second place with matching 12-2 conference records.
Kat Finnerty, a graduate transfer in the Masters in Environmental Management (MEM) program who spent four years playing at Lindenwood University in Missouri, recently became the first Mountaineer to win the RMAC player of the week since 2014. She notched that honor after racking up 26 kills, 19 blocks and 12 digs in home victories against Black Hills State University and South Dakota Mines on Oct. 22 and 23.
Finnerty notes that Lindenwood University places a huge emphasis on their collegiate sport offerings, with their website boasting that they offer 44 collegiate sports. “Until my sophomore year we had collegiate ping-pong,” Finnerty notes with a grin. Finnerty got her master’s in Nonprofit Business Administration at Lindenwood, and chose Western to utilize her bonus year of Covid eligibility and further her education in the mountains.
Finnerty started playing volleyball in the sixth grade but didn’t play club volleyball until she was 17. Club teams are private organizations that significantly extend the normal school-affiliated season. Players will often try out for clubs in the fall and, if they make a team, will play continuously with either school or club through midsummer.
Playing with club teams is the primary way that volleyball players get recruited by colleges, and can help players improve quickly by greatly increasing their total practice and playing time. However, clubs can also be expensive, prohibit playing other sports, and lead to player burnout. Finnerty says she is grateful she started playing club later. She doesn’t believe she would be playing today if she went all-in on volleyball around age 12, as many of her teammates and volleyball friends did.
Finnerty has been a middle blocker most of her career. Middle blockers are positioned up front and are tasked primarily with blocking opposing hits, or “spikes”, and then orchestrating hits of their own to notch “kills” (a grim moniker for successful hits). During her junior and senior years at Lindenwood, Finnerty moved to outside hitter. Now, Finnerty is back in the middle for the Mountaineers.
“To be a middle you have to be a special type of person. Many people, including myself, will tell you it’s the hardest position to play. You have to do a lot,” says Finnerty, noting that it becomes especially challenging against talented teams that utilize quick-hitting offenses, as many of the top RMAC teams do.
Being a middle blocker means taking some licks physically when trying to fend off opponents’ spikes and accepting that you cannot stop them all. “It’s not as scary as you think; I think whenever I was younger I would close my eyes and be like ‘please don’t hit me!’” Finnerty recalls. Nowadays a failed block on a hard hit doesn’t phase her.
Plus, she can return the favor with blocks and hits of her own. The 6’ 0” Finnerty has played all 86 sets for the Mountaineers, one of two players to do so along with defensive specialist Elizabeth Rupprecht. During that time, Finnerty recorded 26 solo blocks and 69 block assists (a 95 block total), far and away the most on the Mountaineers squad. She also amassed 192 kills (second only to junior Jordyn Todd’s 198) and accounted for a team-leading 262.5 total points.
Jordyn Todd, named to the RMAC preseason watch list after earning All-RMAC Second Team honors last year, is undersized for an outside hitter at 5’ 8”. Nevertheless, she has made a tremendous impact for the Mountaineers, leading the team in serve reception percentage for players with more than 50 attempts at 97.6 percent and amassing 272 digs on the season.
“Running middle offense depends a lot on your first ball contact and that first pass,” notes Finnerty of the feast-or-famine nature of playing middle, which heavily depends on the opponents offense and Western’s setters. Recently, it‘s been a lot of feasting. Finnerty recorded more than 10 kills in three of her last four games, including matching her season-high with 16 against South Dakota Mines on Oct. 23. Her other season high in kills also came against the Hardrockers, on the road on Sep. 17.
Finnerty is focused on making the conference tournament, a task well within the grasp of this Mountaineers squad, especially if they can pick up at least two wins in their final slate of four games. She says the season has flown by, which she attributes to the frequent travel and extensive commitments of collegiate athletics paired up with the rigors of graduate school and juggling multiple group projects.
Western’s final four games after their Nov. 5 matchup with MSU Denver include their final home game (Senior Night) on Nov. 6 against Colorado Christian (6-8 RMAC). Back on Sep. 17, the Mountaineers dropped a road match to the Cougars 0-3. The Cougars sit right below the Mountaineers in the conference standings, currently tied for seventh place
The following weekend the Mountaineers will head to Las Vegas, New Mexico for a match with New Mexico Highlands (Nov. 12), and then head up to Alamosa for a date with Adams State (Nov. 13). The Mountaineers have yet to face either team this season, and both teams are currently tied for ninth place in the RMAC, each with 5-10 records.