OCALA--With three straight trips to the NJCAA National Tournament in its three years of existence, the postseason has been a successful time for the College of Central Florida volleyball team.
The Patriots (27-8) hope to continue their strong play in the postseason, as they face No. 9 State College of Florida-Manatee on Thursday morning to kick off play in the FCSAA/NJCAA Region VIII Tournament on the campus of FSC-Jacksonville.
CF is 3-0 all-time in opening round games at the state tournament and has eliminated SCF from the event in each of the last two seasons.
The two teams met following the Mid-Florida Conference gauntlet faced by the Patriots and an undermanned CF squad fell in three sets, but this time around it won't be resting anyone.
"Our players are well prepared for the state tournament," said CF coach Flavia Siqueira, whose team played 11 nationally ranked teams during the regular season. "We recognize that all eight teams that qualified have a fair chance, as everyone's record will be the same at day one.
"Our players understand the tradition they carry as the tradition of our program is to qualify for the national tournament."
There's no margin for error for teams wanting to win the state championship, as teams are out of the running as soon as they suffer a defeat.
In the past, teams could battle back through the consolation bracket in a double-elimination format, but this year when a team is defeated the best it can do is place third and qualify for a possible third-place spot at the national tournament.
Teams losing in the opening round of the tournament would have to win five consecutive games over three days, while those who win their first two games earn automatic bids to the national tournament.
To get there, CF will need a strong showing against SCF.
The Manatees (25-4) have won 20 consecutive matches and were named Suncoast Conference champion. A year ago at state, SCF knocked off CF to force a winner-take-all for a spot in the national tournament and state championship, which the Patriots prevailed in.
"They have a great volleyball program and there are some key players who have been performing very well this season," Siqueira said. "However, our goal is to focus on our side of the bet and perform at our highest level."
One player who has performed at the highest level throughout the season for CF is freshman Julymar Otero, a three-time state player of the week, one-time national player of the week and conference player of the year. Otero leads the country with a 4.78 kills per set average and has a kill percentage of .339.
Against nationally-ranked opponents, Otero has been even better with a 5.03 kill per set average, coupled with a .383 percentage. She also broke the school record for kills in a match twice during the season and is within 61 kills of passing former CF All-America Vanessa Benke's single season kill record of 533.
"July has been an incredible asset to our program," Siqueira said. "Our players rely on her consistency and have great trust in her volleyball IQ. It has been fun seeing July develop throughout the season on-and-ff the court."
CF, which finished as co-MFC champions with Santa Fe, has also received a record-breaking year from Marina Adami, the team's sophomore setter.
Adami has set the school record for assists in a game (63) and career assists (2,843). She earned her second first-team all-conference honor recently and has been key in helping five Patriot players total over 100 kills on the year.
If CF can win its opener against SCF, it would need to knock off the winner between Gulf Coast State and Palm Beach State in order to qualify for nationals and Saturday's state championship match.
A loss by the Patriots and they would face the loser of the aforementioned game on Friday, coupled with another match against one of the losing squads from Friday's second-round action.
From there, CF would then have to win one more game on Saturday in order to qualify for another match Sunday against the winner of the Alabama portion of the region to make it to nationals.
In the past, CF has been able to make it to nationals either way.
During their first year, the Patriots started off 1-1, before having to win twice against Hillsborough and against FSC-Jacksonville in order to make it. The next season, CF went unbeaten at state, before last year where it started off 2-0 and then rallied past SCF on its way to finishing as state runner-up.
Should the Patriots advance to nationals, they would extend the school record of four straight appearances, best for any current sport at the college.