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Cougars seek third title at home

When Clearwater Christian College won the past two National Christian College Athletic Association national championships, it didn't have to worry about any outside distractions. The Cougars simply had to show up, win their matches and take home the trophy.

Things are different as they look to make it three straight.

Clearwater Christian College will host this year's tournament, which begins today and runs through Saturday.

Aside from worrying about winning matches, the Cougars must also worry about being gracious hosts to the nine other teams in town for the tournament.

That involves overseeing every little detail, from setting up the courts to making sure every team has a place to stay.

"It's a lot of work but it's worth it," Cougars coach Vickie Grooms said. "We hope to have a good home crowd. We really wanted to host it this year because we have five seniors and it's a great way for them to go out."

Teams qualified at eight regional tournaments. The field was rounded out by two at-large teams, Lincoln Christian and Maranatha.

Pool play starts today at 10 a.m. on two courts set up in the Clearwater Christian gym. The Cougars host Cincinnati Bible College in the first match of the day.

Each of the 10 teams play three matches today and one Friday morning. Two teams will be eliminated after the Friday morning matches and the remaining eight will be re-seeded for a single-elimination tournament beginning at 2 p.m. Friday.

The finals are 6 p.m. Saturday.

"I think it's the strongest group ever," Grooms said. "Any of the top six teams could win it."

The Cougars, however, are the favorites. They're seeded No.

1 after a 33-11 season. Many of the players from last year's championship team returned.

Clearwater Christian cruised to a regional title in Toccoa Falls, Ga. two weeks ago, but enters the tournament on a two-match losing streak.

The Cougars lost to Madonna College and Palm Beach Atlantic prior to the NCCAA nationals.

"We played teams well above us before the nationals," Grooms said. "They were scholarship athletes and we're just nice girls that also play volleyball. But it should get us ready for what we'll see here."

The second-seeded team in the nationals is Moody Bible Institute of Chicago.

Other threats include Mid-America Bible College (Olathe, Kan.), Maranatha (Watertown, Wis.), Lincoln Christian College (Lincoln, Ill.), and Faith Baptist Bible College (Ankeny, Iowa).

Aside from the home court, the Cougars also have the advantage in experience. All of the seniors have been to nationals since they were freshmen.

Those seniors, Jen Wilkerson, Melissa Wiecek, Karen Lavender, Cathy Trask and Holly Mauldin, will be counted on again this year.

Grooms thinks experience is a big advantage.

"We've been here before," she said. "They've all been there at crunch time. It's definitely a positive."

COUGARS SOCCER: The Clearwater Christian men's soccer team is also in a national tournament.

The Cougars will vie for the NCCAA national championship of their own starting today in Kissimmee. Clearwater Christian, seeded third, plays Simpson College at 5 p.m.

The Cougars are 14-6 and seek their first national championship in soccer.