The Polk State College women's volleyball team is making its first trip out of state with hopes of gaining national prominence.
The Eagles open the season by competing in the Reiver Classic at Iowa Western Community College — home of the NJCAA's second-ranked team.
Polk's young team seeks a chance to become nationally recognized by playing two ranked opponents in the event, before embarking on a campaign back in Florida that will also feature top-tier competition.
The prospect of making an early statement has second-year coach German Del Valle pumped about the 2013 season.
"We have it," he said after two weeks of intensive practices. "We just need to stay healthy."
Last year, the Eagles finished fifth in the state as they made their second consecutive trip to the FCSAA tournament.
They also defeated 10th-ranked Miami Dade and took Gulf District champion College of Central Florida to five games in a loss, but received little recognition in terms of the state poll — something that motivated Del Valle to book the Reiver tournament, to be held this weekend in Iowa.
"I want to see where Polk State is in terms of playing the best of the best," Del Valle said. "If our recruiting gives us a lift and we compete at a national level and get ranked…"
Del Valle shook his head.
"We went five games with Ocala (Central Florida) and beat Miami Dade and you don't get recognized? Something's wrong."
The Eagles, who were 23-13 in 2012, will have a chance to get it right.
They face Jefferson College of Missouri and Western Wyoming on Friday. Western Wyoming is ranked 16th in the NJCAA Pre-Season poll.
Saturday, they meet sixth-ranked Salt Lake Community College of Utah and Barton Community College of Kansas.
A victory, victories or even a good showing could transform the season with a boost of confidence and pride.
The players can't wait for the challenge.
"We've been counting down the days," said sophomore outside hitter Diannmarie Rivera-Romero (Puerto Rico).
"It will get our name out there better and will help us be known as a national program," said sophomore outside hitter Ashley Hass (Lyman).
The two players hope their new found team chemistry — an important element that was missing last season, will give them an assist this weekend.
"This year it's completely opposite," said Hass of the team's cohesiveness compared to last year.
"We are united inside and outside the court," added Rivera-Romero.
"It was there even before they got here," Del Valle said. "They were on Facebook talking to each other. They knew each other. We have character. We have people who sacrifice for each other. It's our strength. Talent with no chemistry won't work."
This year's team is so evenly talented, Del Valle is flustered as he tries to name the starters.
"It's a good problem to have," he said. "It will allow us to match styles depending on the opponent. We'll play a lot of games this year with the opportunity to play in at least four tournaments."
With eight freshmen, the Eagles will see their skills tested in tournaments at Miami Dade, State College of Florida, Florida State College at Jacksonville and Hillsborough.
Del Valle looks to sophomores Rivera-Romero and Hass to lead the front row, outside hitters.
Both Rivera-Romero and Hass return from injuries that kept them on the sidelines much of last year.
Rivera-Romero was a 2011 Suncoast Conference first team player.
"She makes it happen," said Del Valle. "She is a great all-around player."
On the right side front row, shy freshman outside hitter Shatorreia Edgecomb (Dame) has blossomed.
"She is a dynamic athlete," Del Valle said. "At the beginning, she was quiet. I think she's going to be the surprise we didn't know we had," he said.
Veteran setter Ashley Toth (Edgewater) provides the fire for the Eagles with a familiar broad smile and a mighty fist pump after points.
While the Eagles have found the motivating intangible of chemistry, there's one advantage to volleyball they can't do anything about — height.
Only one player, sophomore middle blocker Cheye-Anne Savage (Hudson), is over six feet tall.
It doesn't matter, though, for the players.
"Last year we were taller, but not as strong," said Hass. "Hillsborough was second last year and they were tiny."
"And they beat Miami Dade, which made the finals," added Rivera-Romero.
It's attitude like that, that has Del Valle smiling.
The pre-season was just what he had hoped for.
"It was painful and successful," he said. "It's going to be nice. They competed and blocked and made fun of each other. It's been fun."