PREVIEW: Volleyball kicks off 2016 season

PREVIEW: Volleyball kicks off 2016 season

OCALA-- The College of Central Florida women's volleyball team kicks off the 2016 season today at the HCC Kickoff Classic in Tampa.

The Lady Patriots look to capture a sixth-straight Mid-Florida Conference title and a trip back to the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national tournament for the fifth time in six years. To do so, they will rely on the leadership of their returning sophomores. 

"We've got six hungry and focused sophomores who are looking to better their efforts from last year," said head coach Flavia Siqueira. "I'm really excited to have them back as the newcomers are looking to them for guidance."

NJCAA All-American setter Nathaly Alvarez, who led the state in total assists (1513) a year ago, headlines the group of returners. Joining her is Rafaela Fonseca, Alyssa Gage, Chelsea Chavers, Licie Leite, and Julia Azevedo, who finished the 2015 season second in the state in total kills (536).

Newcomers Ariadne Morais and Taynan Paiva will help Gage bolster the middle, while Nayrelis Pantoja, Buse Ene and Kristin Schemm will provide depth at the right and outside hitting positions, and Ivona Vojvodic will help Alvarez and Leite guide the ship at setter. 

"All the players have been putting in a lot of hours in the weight room and in the gym continuing to perfect the fundamentals," said Alvarez. "I think overall as a team we have better ball control and our versatility in all areas of the court is going to help us this year."

The Patriots come into the season ranked No. 3 in the state and No. 10 in the nation. They will open up the season against the top two teams in the state, including Polk State College, who defeated CF 3-1 last year at the state tournament, and reigning state champion Hillsborough Community College.

CF will be tested early and often with the strength of their schedule, but Siqueira looks to tap into the versatility of this year's team. 

"I'm excited to have choices this year," said Siqueira. "We are able to utilize all of our players in multiple positions…that's not something we've been able to do in the past."

Versatility will be key as CF enters conference play. 

The Patriots are 37-3 all-time in conference and have clinched the conference title since the programs inception five years ago, but the MFC is one of the toughest conferences in the state. It boasts state and nationally ranked opponents Daytona State College and Santa Fe College.

"It is going to be all about the details and preparation," said Siqueira. "We all know each other so well… It is a battle year in and year out in our conference and this year is no different."

CF's opening weekend kicks off today versus No. 2 Polk State (11 a.m.) and St. Petersburg College (2:30 p.m.) at the HCC Kickoff Classic on the HCC-Dale Mabry campus. On Saturday, they face No. 4 Indian River State College (10 a.m.) and No. 1 HCC (5 p.m.).

The Patriots' first regular-season home game will be Saturday, September 10 as they host a tri-match with Palm Beach State College (Noon) and State College of Florida-Manatee (4 p.m.). 

CLICK HERE for a complete schedule, as well as up-to-date news and results throughout the 2016 season.