PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - It's championship week for Gulf Coast volleyball.
Tuesday morning around 5 AM, the team is set to depart campus for Charleston, West Virginia. That's a bit early, but no one is complaining.
When Thursday's round of 16 game against McHenry County (IL) begins, it'll mark the program's first ever appearance in the national tournament.
GCSC is seeded sixth with a 21-6 record. They shared the regular season conference crown and earned the NJCAA berth by winning the Sun Lakes postseason tournament.
Winning all that, and potentially winning it all later this week, takes several of small, unseen victories along the way.
"It's the pinnacle for whatever lever you're in, but we really are a little more focused on the process," head coach Scott Allen said. "We're worried about getting a little bit better every single day. We thought with the talent we had coming in that we had a really good shot at it. We just talked to the girls all year long about steadily improving, taking care of our job, and if we did that, we'd have a really good look at winning the conference, getting a shot at going to the national championship and actually winning a national championship once we get there."
Gulf Coast is a program our area can claim as its own not only in name, but in nurture.
Nine of the sixteen players hail from the northwest Florida area. Arnold, Bay, Blountstown, Crestview, Mosley, and North Bay Haven are all represented, along with a tenth Panhandle product from Ridgeview in Tallahassee.
Talent plus established camaraderie is a winning equation.
"We always played against each other so it's kind of cool," freshman Emma Richard, the 2018 1A Player of the Year at Blountstown said. "Once we knew we were all coming here, it was funny to think back at all the games we played each other. It definitely makes it a lot easier. You feel a little bit more comfortable, it's not as nerve-wracking, you're just going in with people you know."
Arnold alum Anna Merrill Goolsby says it's something special to be a part of this team, regardless of where you're from!
"It's a huge deal for us, we're all really excited. Especially because it is the first time. And it's really great being on that made it there for the first time."
As for playing in Charleston, well that's a big unknown for the players, who are ready for the experience of it all.
"I just feel it's definitely gonna be a different environment." says freshman Ava Shmeuli. "I think the place we're playing in is a little bigger. So it's not as like...homey. And we won't have as many of our parents there, and fans because it's a 15 hour drive, a three hour plane ride. So it's a little different than playing at home.>
The first round game against eleven seed McHenry County begins at 9 AM eastern. The winner advances to the quarterfinals later that afternoon, with the semifinals scheduled for Friday and national championship Saturday.
Copyright 2019 WJHG. All rights reserved.