The No. 17 Polk State College volleyball team will meet a familiar foe Friday to open the NJCAA Region 8 tournament in Jacksonville.
Polk (21-15), a passionate and energetic team that took second in the Suncoast Conference, will meet No. 6 Hillsborough (34-4), the Suncoast Conference champion at 10 a.m. Friday.
In three meetings, the Eagles have won one set against the Hawks, who won the Gulf District last year.
It's a challenge Polk head coach German Del Valle is wholeheartedly accepting.
"It doesn't matter who you play the first day, you have to win," he said. "Your record doesn't matter. You have to play everyone and everyone wants to do the best they can."
The Eagles are attending the tournament for the third consecutive year, the second under Del Valle as a head coach. He was an assistant when the Eagles started to turn the program's fortunes around and won the Suncoast title in 2011.
Polk is known as a program on the rise and one that will give the Hawks a battle.
Del Valle has set a game plan for the weekend aimed at reaching Sunday's Gulf or Atlantic District finals for the first time.
"We have to minimize what we can control – when and where we hit the ball," he said. "We have to move the ball around more and try to minimize mistakes. We have been working on hitting at different angles."
Over the past few weeks the Eagles have gone through sickness and injuries, but have recovered and worked on adding a second setter to their lineup to change the game and add another element to challenge Hillsborough.
The change allows the Eagles an extra blocker or hitter in the rotation against the powerful Hawks.
"If we do that, we have a chance," said assistant Line Oliveira.
But, she warns of having seven freshmen on the team who could be nervous, despite having played in five tournaments.
"Since we have so many freshmen (7), it can be a little nerve-racking," Oliveira said. "All they have to do is follow what we've worked on in the last three months and believe in that. Plus, they need to have fun."
The Eagles have a strong back row to hold off Hillsborough's attack with the steady play of freshman libero Rossanna Ramos (Puerto Rico) and sophomore Diannmarie Rivera (Puerto Rico).
Ramos is former setter who has turned into a leader and was recognized by the FCSAA as Defensive Player of the Week.
"She has moments when she carries the team," said Oliveira.
Rivera is a strong back row hitter and passer who was named to the All-Conference team as a freshman. She is 13th in the country in digs.
"She comes every night and does her stuff," Del Valle said.
Captain Ashley Hass is also dependable on the back row. Plus, she is like having a coach on the court.
In the middle, freshmen Ana Karine-Cavalcante (Brazil) and Genesis Castillo (Puerto Rico) have found their groove along with freshmen Liz Garcia (Utah), Luaztani Turbi (Dominican Republic) and sophomore Cheye-Anne Savage (Hudson). The rotation of the five is evenly balanced.
Each possesses different characteristics that can propel Polk to a win.
"If we give Cheye-Anne the ball at the right time, she can do a lot," said Del Valle. 'She's crucial for us."
Savage has the team's highest kill percentage at 28.64 percent.
Garcia is second on the team.
Castillo can catch fire.
"When Genesis is on, she's on," said Del Valle of the hustling blocker.
The humble and quiet Shatorreia Edgecombe (Dame) is calm and deadly with her athleticism and ability to leap high to pummel the ball.
"She can fly," Oliveira said. Edgecombe leads the team in kills with 393 and is ranked 25th in the country.
"This year each one of them have given us something to get us where we are today," Oliveira said. "Now it's time for us to collect all of that and put it all in the state tournament. I believe if we do that, and with the passion we have, we can surprise a lot of people."
The Eagles won't be intimidated.
They have emerged as an up-and-coming force in the state.
In an effort to earn national recognition, the Eagles have played one of the tougher schedules in the state.
The goal is easy to achieve since Polk plays in one of the most competitive states and conferences in the country.
Over the course of the season, No. 10 College of Central Florida, No. 6 Hillsborough, No. 9 Miami-Dade and State College of Florida have all been ranked in the NJCAA's top 20 poll.
Hillsborough reached the No. 2 spot at one point this season. College of Central Florida won the Atlantic District last year.
Naturally, all have been ranked in the state's top five all season.
Polk knows Hillsborough and State College better than anyone, since both are Polk's Suncoast Conference foes. Each has faced the other three times.
Outside of the conference, the Eagles have faced College of Central Florida twice (wining one set) and Miami-Dade three times.
"We're just saving it for the state tournament," Hass said.
The Eagles have held their own.
They have been ranked in the state's top five for the majority of the season. They are currently ranked No. 19 in the NJCAA and have climbed as high as No. 15.
The Eagles opened the season in Iowa at a highly competitive Reiver Classic.
There they defeated No. 6 Salt Lake Community College and had match point against No. 16 Western Wyoming Community College.
During the season, Polk also took No. 8 College of Southern Idaho to five sets.
They were the only undefeated team (4-0) in the State College of Florida tournament.
They've topped State College of Florida and won a set against College of Central Florida.
Twice they have defeated Florida State College of Jacksonville. The Blue Wave has received votes all season in the FCSAA poll and were ranked nationally early in the season.
Polk is also ranked ninth in the NJCAA in kills, 10th in assists (Toth is 16th in assists per set), 12th in digs and 18th in total blocks.
"We've competed against some very good teams," said Oliveira. "We know we can beat them. We've been so close."
Watch the Eagles at psblive.com or thefcsaa.com.