WALLA WALLA - Walla Walla Community College's volleyball team returns to the NWAACC Championship Tournament Thursday after missing the 2010 tournament.
The Warriors, 31-8 on the season, are looking for their first championship since 2005.
"I'll be surprised if we don't finish in the top five," WWCC coach Tim Toon said. "If we hit a hot weekend, we could win it all. If teams want to beat us, they better stop our middles. If they don't, we're going to beat almost everybody we play."
Those middles - 6-foot sophomore Brittany Dominguez (429 kills, 143 blocks this season), and 6-foot sophomore Libby Kern (367 kills, 117 blocks) - have earned Toon's confidence in their abilities and perseverance in overcoming obstacles this season.
"I watched Brittany at a club tournament," Toon said. "She had a ton of raw talent that I thought would take just a little bit of polish to get her where she needed to be. She is one of the best - if not the best - to play in this program. If we do well in the tournament, Brittany will be a (junior college) first-team all-American.
"Katy and Shelby Isham, who played basketball here, went to the same school as Libby and let me know about her," Toon said. "Libby probably has the most physical ability, but probably (was) the rawest (technique-wise) as any player I've ever had. This year, she has brought it together and shown incredible growth in her game."
It is not often that players from small towns are discovered by colleges, let alone reach the level of success that Toon's middles have.
Kern comes from the first town in Idaho to be lit by atomic power, Arco, which is 50 miles west of Idaho Falls and boasts a population of 980.
"I was born in Dallas, Texas, and was adopted at age 2 and my (adopted dad) lived in Arco," Kern said. "Besides sports, the bowling alley would be open sometimes. Occasionally, during the winter, we would shoot rabbits. I did volleyball, basketball, track, club volleyball and summer softball. It was such a small town, and I had nothing else to do, that I decided to play sports."
Dominguez comes from a much larger city: Weiser, Idaho, population 5,330.
"I first lived in Monterrey, Calif.," Dominguez said. "We moved as I was entering third grade because I had family there. There's nothing to do in Weiser. I was in volleyball, track, cheerleading, and I played really competitive club volleyball for Club Idaho my senior year and for three years (prior), I played for smaller clubs."
Dominguez is Hispanic and Kern is African-American. But both are simply recognized as student athletes.
"Volleyball is largely a suburban sport," Toon said. "There are not a lot of minorities playing. That's largely because the best volleyball players play club volleyball. You need access to big cities and resources (to play club). They (Dominguez and Kern), coming from small schools and being minorities and being so successful, have represented themselves in outstanding fashion."
"My two brothers and I were the only African-Americans in our town (Arco)," Kern said. "We just fit in. Since everyone knows everyone, no one looked at us as ‘those Black people.' When looking at recruiting, it (ethnicity) didn't affect at all."
"There is a good mix of everything (races) in Weiser," Dominguez said. "I didn't feel different (than anyone else). I was the only non-white on the club team, but they didn't make me feel weird."
The Warriors became the only serious suitor for both Kern and Dominguez, and both joined the WWCC family at the start of the 2010 season.
"I started playing volleyball in sixth grade as all my friends were doing it," Dominguez said. "By my sophomore year, I realized this was the sport I loved the most. I wanted to go to college and play. I visited (WWCC) during spring break of my senior year and I liked it. This was the only place that tried to pursue me."
"I came in February and he (Toon) tested us (in skills)," Kern said. "My senior year, I decided I didn't want to stop playing volleyball, so why not play in college? Katie and Shelby (Isham) said a lot of good things about it (WWCC) and made me feel comfortable, and it was really nice and really pretty up here."
The transition from Arco to Walla Walla proved to be challenging.
"It was very scary," Kern said. "I was not used to the fast (volleyball) pace at all. It was such a jump from high school to college. I didn't think it was going to be that big of a jump, but it was. I didn't know how to handle it for a little bit, but I got the hang of it."
Then came the adjustment to the "big" city.
"I was scared to go to the store," Kern said. "I was freaking out about being lost or scared about other people, but it turned out to be a really nice town."
Dominguez's transition was paved by Weiser's location, and her experience at the highest club level.
"It (the transition) wasn't that bad," she said. "Ontario, Ore., is 30 minutes away and is about the same size, so I got used to it (Walla Walla) pretty quick. We went to Las Vegas tournaments for club, and I got a taste of what it (collegiate volleyball) was going to be, so I had a feel for how it (Warrior volleyball) would be."
After missing the NWAACC tournament their freshman years, both have shown improvement on the court.
Dominguez jumped from 2.7 kills per game to 4.5 in 2011, and from .69 blocks to 1.17 blocks per game.
Kern jumped from 2.4 kills to 3.7 and .71 blocks to 1.01 blocks per game.
As the middles have gone, the Warriors have followed.
"It's weird to go from last year's disappointment to this year," Dominguez said. "It's 100 times better. I've improved a lot (as) Toon drills us over the spring and winter. We (the team) click so well together and play as one. It feels so good to win."
"I've noticed a lot of things that I have never done before," Kern said of this season. "I'm still learning."
The middles are focused on doing their part to help the Warriors have a successful tournament.
"I need to be confident in myself and not show that I'm frustrated," Kern said. "My team looks up to me, so I just need to be confident and supportive."
"We need a lot of leadership," team captain Dominguez said. "They (teammates) look to me to keep them going when we are having hard times on the court. I have to be inspirational and keep doing what I'm doing. We need all 14 of us.
"Toon said that the teams he has coached have always done better at NWAACCs," she continued. "That gives me confidence. We will do well."
"I'm really excited," Kern said of the approaching NWAACC Championships. "Even though there are six players on the court, we still need all 14. I know if we go in with a good attitude and know we can beat every team in that gym, we can walk away with first place."
There will be life after the NWAACC tourney, and Dominguez and Kern plan to continue their education.
For Dominguez, there is hope that a scholarship for volleyball lies in her future as she pursues her four-year degree.
"I'm being looked at by several NAIA and (NCAA) Division II schools," she said. "I hope to get a scholarship and become a therapist for mentally ill patients."
For Kern, the volleyball future is clouded due to a chronic shoulder injury, but the drive for the degree is strong.
"Sometimes I think I want to play on and sometimes I don't as the shoulder bothers me," Kern said. "I want to become a children's therapist."
Whatever their future holds, relationships will be the most cherished memory both will take from the Warrior experience.
"Trusting other people on and off the court," Kern said. "Having that strong bond (with teammates) and knowing that no matter what they will be there."
"We both love our team," Dominguez added. "They (teammates) are the best anyone could ask for. We have appreciated all our coaches. Even though we've had some rough patches, he (Toon) is a really good coach and we are both thankful to have him."