By Kyle LoJacono
The Pasco-Hernando Community College (PHCC) volleyball team took a big step toward claiming back-to-back national championships by winning its regional tournament.
The No. 6 ranked Conquistadors (31-9) defeated Surry Community College 25-10, 25-14, 25-10 to claim the regional title and earn a berth in the National Junior College Athletics Association (NJCAA) Division II national tournament in Toledo Nov. 17-19.
“We were on a mission from the moment we walked into that gym at regionals,” said sophomore rightside hitter and team captain Jessica Imbimbo, who has 332 kills, 328 digs and 31 aces this year. “We were all business. Getting there was almost expected of us because we were the national champions last year.”
PHCC has been reminded all season what is expected when the players and coaches look on the wall and see the championship banner in their home gym.
“It was definitely daunting on us from the very beginning of practice,” Imbimbo said. “Looking at that banner every day and knowing that’s the expectation we have to live up to.”
Conquistadors coach Kim Whitney said the real challenge was getting the team back to a championship level after losing six graduating sophomores.
“Going into the season there were a lot of new things,” Whitney said. “We had a lot of freshmen coming in who were going to be starters, and you’re not sure how they are going to react. How they are going to respond to our practices and our team.”
One of those freshmen is outside hitter Victoria Ashley, who leads the squad with 417 kills and 50 aces.
“I was a little bit nervous because high school and college levels are completely different,” Ashley said. “The pace of the game is just so much faster in college. There are girls with more height at this level, everyone hits harder, the defense is a lot better. Everything is improved by 10 times. I knew I was coming to a winning team, so I was confident we would have a good season.”
Ashley said she has tried to assume a leadership role while working on her game.
“I’ve been loud and tried to encourage people,” Ashley said. “I wanted to be leader as a freshman to let the other freshmen know there shouldn’t be a divide between the sophomores and the freshmen. We’re all the same on this team.”
Whitney is not worried with having a large number of her starters that are freshmen playing in their first national tournament. She said each team has to find its own identity even if it has many returning players.
“We’ve never wanted them to compare themselves to the team last year,” Whitney said. “Every team is different and to put that pressure on yourself that we have to do things the same way, that’s not how things work. We have to do things our own way with this team and this group.”
Imbimbo said she and the other sophomores let the freshmen know what to expect at nationals.
“We told them it’s just like any other match,” Imbimbo said. “We don’t want them to think we got here last year and won. We try not to bring up last year with them as much so they don’t get paranoid with trying to live up to last year. We just tell them to be confident, they’re good players and we earned this spot for a reason. If we play the way we know how to play, then we’re going accomplish our goals.”
And while Imbimbo is playing in her second national tournament, she said she finds herself as excited as when she was a freshman last year.
“I’m extremely anxious,” Imbimbo said. “After the last match at regionals I was ready to get on a plane and go to Ohio then, but I think it was good that we had a full week to prepare in between to work out the kinks as coach says. I think we’re ready physically, but this helped us all get mentally prepared.”
Whitney added the week between regionals and nationals has allowed them to fine tune everything from technique to chemistry.
“Our focus this week has really been on the team emphasis,” Whitney said. “It’s all about who the best team is at the right time. It’s not always the best players who win — it’s the best team that wins. That’s our focus going out there. We need to find ways to support each other so we can be the best team we can be when we step on the floor.”