Ocala, Fla.-- In reaching the FCSAA State Tournament for the third consecutive season, the College of Central Florida volleyball team has readied itself against many formidable opponents.
The Patriots (23-10) played nearly half of their matches against teams ranked in the NJCAA Top 20 Poll and they will look to see this pay off when they attempt to defend their state championship on the South campus at FSC-Jacksonville beginning Friday morning at 10 against Indian River.
"There are four or five teams that can win state and it's up in the air," CF coach Flavia Siqueira said. "We had a tough season with a tough schedule and a lot of injuries, incoming freshman, players playing new positions and then players switching positions (during the season).
"We've had to come up with new strategies during a lot of matches and I think it is time for our players to realize that even though we had so many changes we still did a very good job.
"Sometimes the record doesn't show the tough schedule that we've had. Looking at the schedule for teams in the top 10, we probably had the second or third toughest."
Facing a schedule that included the likes of nationally ranked Blinn (No. 1), Tyler (No. 2), Western Nebraska (No. 3), Hillsborough (No. 6), Miami Dade (No. 9) and Polk State (No. 17) is something that Siqueira hopes made this year's Patriot squad better.
"We don't regret it," Siqueira said. "We had moments where we could have beat (teams ranked nationally) No. 2 (and No. 4), but it wasn't the proper time.
"Perhaps now at the end and knowing what we've done we can put everything together."
CF went 4-0 last season at state and became the first team other than Miami Dade to win a state championship since Hillsborough in 2006.
A year ago, the Patriots brought a sophomore-laden group to Jacksonville, but this year, the team is a much younger one that has made strides as the year has gone on.
"We've tried to let the younger players know that the state tournament is much more serious than our regular season," CF sophomore middle Brittney Brown said. "It's much more intense, but also the best part of the year to experience as a team.
"It's the time where we have to come together the most and play together the most and take everything that we've been taught and show it off for those three days that we're there."
Brown, who along with Raveen Golston are the only returning starters from a team that won CF's first state title in any sport since 1997, feels her team is peaking at the right team.
"We're just trying to get mentally ready more than we did last year," she said. "We need to walk in that first day and believe that we are going to accomplish our goals."
Up first for CF is Indian River (18-11), a team it swept in Ocala in early September.
"Their entire team brings a lot of ball control and you have got to be patient," Siqueira said. "You've got to let them get tired and let them make the mistakes. The first time we played them (was in early in the season), but the essence of a team doesn't change too much (and the ball control aspect) was what they were known for the entire season."
Down the stretch, the Patriots played strong and closed the season out with a road win over nationally-ranked Polk, as well as a tournament victory over Hillsborough, a team it had lost to twice earlier in the season.
"I think we can see a lot of improvement in different areas which is really good," Brown said. "Going back a month or so, it was a little shaky, but now I think we're starting to realize that we are good and we have really good abilities as a team.
"We've worked really hard to learn to play together and we've got to keep the intensity up and try to talk as much as we can and it's been coming along very well."
Along the way, players like Golston and Brown stepped up for CF.
Brown, who came to CF from Fresno, Calif., earned Mid-Florida Conference Player of the Year and kept a string of three straight MFC POY's and three straight MFC titles going for the Patriots.
"It's a really good feeling," Brown said. "I'm not going to lie; I told myself last year I would be (POY). .... It's a really big accomplishment. I set so many goals for myself and for my team and for my team to accomplish (a) conference (championship) and for myself to (player of the year and all-conference), those are things that make me so excited to go to state and another thing that makes me want to work to get something more at state."
COLLEGE OF CENTRAL FLORIDA VOLLEYBALL
When: First round game against Indian River on Friday at 10 a.m. From there, No. 10 CF will face either No. 9 Miami Dade or FSC-Jacksonville. A win over IRSC and the Patriots would play on Saturday at 10 a.m. The tournament runs from Friday to Sunday.
Where: FSC-Jacksonville's South Campus.
Players to watch: CF: Brittney Brown (369 kills, MFC Player of the Year), Raveen Golston (369 kills, 327 digs), Marina Adami (1,261 assists), Amanda Saunders (197 kills), Jasmyn Perry (198 kills), Jorddalys Santos (453 digs).
Outlook: The Patriots start the state tournament off against IRSC, a team which received votes in the latest NJCAA National Poll. CF swept the Pioneers back in September. Up next for the Patriots would be either FSC-J or Miami Dade. FSC-J is winless in three seasons against CF, including a pair of defeats this past regular season. Miami Dade went 2-0 against the Patriots during the regular season and leads the all-time series 5-1. The Sharks won in five sets against CF earlier this season and then won the rematch in four. Golston (33 kills) and Brown (21 kills) were the leaders against Miami Dade, which features standout hitter Wendy Romero (454 kills), who had 53 kills in two matches against the Patriots this season. Silvia Galeano (215 kills), Haley Foote (605 assists) and Cavelis Rojas (507 assists) are others to watch for Miami Dade. If CF wins its first two matches, it would advance to Sunday and play against an opponent from the Suncoast Conference at 9:30 a.m. A year ago, CF went 4-0 at the state tournament and is 8-2 all-time in the event.
What's next: The top two finishers in the tournament advance to the NJCAA National Tournament. CF qualified for nationals in each of its first two seasons.