NEW PORT RICHEY — With their coach back from maternity leave, the Pasco-Hernando Community College volleyball this week will defend its national NJCAA championship in Toledo, Ohio.
The Conquistadors, with eight freshmen and eight sophomores, are scheduled to play Phoenix College at 3 p.m. Thursday in the first game of the 16-team double-elimination tournament. The final is set for 6 p.m. Saturday.
"The girls have played at a high level throughout most of the season which is good to see us maintain," said Coach Kim Whitney, who in eight years at the college has taken her team to the big dance four times. "This team understands what is expected of them and we have leadership on the floor that has stepped up in a big way. The biggest focus has to be the team and I've been lucky enough to find players whose main focus is the team first instead of breaking down into cliques."
The Conquistadors are 31-9. Whitney left early in the season to have a baby (Koral arrived on Aug. 26.) Assistant coaches and sophomore captain Jessica Imbimbo guided the team through midseason.
"It was tough having her gone and when she came back we realized how much work we had to do to get to where we needed to be," sophomore middle hitter Quynn Fonseca said. "We've always gotten along well as a team and when we're all on the same page we've won, but it was hard without coach Whitney here. When she got back I think we all realized we weren't doing some important things."
Imbimbo is a vocal presence on the floor and benefitted from last year's championship tournament experience.
"This year's group is a lot different than what we had last season because there are a lot more freshmen," Imbimbo said. "It's put some pressure on me to lead, but I love it and wanted to take it on. I relish the opportunity to try and motivate my teammates.
The champions always wear a target.
"Every time we walk in the gym it's going to be tough because everyone knows who we are," Whitney said. "Our last few practices have been some of our best of the season and we've been working on trying to get everyone to focus on the level that we're at.''
The team has been through intense training sessions over the last week as they prepare for the tournament and received a sending off from school officials and fellow students outside the gym on Monday.
"Because there are so many freshman we just have to make sure everyone is confident and not worrying about living up to last year," Imbimbo said. "Those of us that were here try not to mention last year too much. This is a new season and a new team and if we fine tune the little things we'll make it back to the finals."