By Candace Martino
After reeling off 11 straight wins, the University of Tampa volleyball team rose back to a No.1 ranking for the first time since September, then subsequently fell to No. 5 as they dropped a contest to Lynn University in five sets on Saturday.
“As far as the No. 1 ranking, it doesn’t really matter to us. We need to keep improving day by day and hopefully we’ll put ourselves in a position to host regionals, which will give us the best chance of returning to the Elite Eight,” assistant coach Brian Imperiale said.
This past weekend, Tampa competed in the South Region Crossover Tournament posting a perfect record of 3-0. The Spartans closed out the tournament with a sweep over West Alabama, 25-13, 25-18, and 25-14. UT collectively eclipsed a .432 attack percentage, showing off an offense that is finding its rhythm at just the right time.
The Spartans carried over the momentum to Friday night’s game as they went head-to-head with longtime rival Nova Southeastern University. The Sharks just weren’t enough to slow Tampa down, as the Spartans ran away with another three-game sweep. Tampa improved to 17-3 on the year, while sitting in first place of the Sunshine State Conference (SSC) standings.
“There were a couple upsets [tonight] and that put some distance between us and the other official eight schools in conference. Palm Beach Atlantic who still can’t win conference is ranked No. 2 in the region and that’s really what we’re concerned with,” Imperiale said.
Seniors Jessica Wagner and Berkley Whaley are a big reason why Tampa is the team to beat. Wagner, who has been named SSC Offensive Player of the Week for the third consecutive time, is averaging an impressive .456 attack percentage while also leading the team in blocks. The one-two punch of Whaley and Wagner have put up impressive numbers that most teams should be concerned about going into the final stretch of the season.
“With Wagner and Whaley, they continue to be a huge part of our team and we know we can depend on them. With all the parity in our conference this season, it’s been very important for our leaders to show the rest of the team how they mentally prepare for each opponent no matter who it is,” Imperiale said.
Though Wagner and Whaley’s statistical performance is what gains most of the attention, the team’s depth goes much farther than that. UT’s roster consists of six seniors who all bring championship experience to the floor. One important piece to this team is Seminole, Fla. native Marissa Lisenbee. Standing at six-foot two-inches tall, the right side hitter is known for her explosive attacks that she credits to the drill work they do during practice.
“In practice we do a lot of competition drills where we split into two teams. I think it’s really beneficial that our non-starters are just as good as the girls that are starting. Each practice allows me to play against great competition. This forces me to play out of my comfort zone,” Lisenbee said.
Lisenbee has been a secret weapon for this Spartan team, producing offense and defensive numbers at an above average rate. In the last three games combined Lisenbee has been hitting a .450 clip, which is well over the ideal range for a right side hitter. But, her presence can be felt on both sides of the net as she is leading the team in block assists.
“We play a lot of teams that utilize their outside hitters so my job is important. I try to put up a consistent block so that the team can play defense around me,” mentioned Lisenbee.
But playing defense isn’t the only thing in the forefront for the Spartans. UT is hopeful that they will host the NCAA regional tournament come this December. The regional will include three days of competition commencing with the regional championship. For the first time in school history Tampa was selected to host the tournament championship rounds at the Bob Martinez Center, which will include the final four and national championship. This puts Tampa in the position to potentially have home court for much of the tournament as they look to defend their National Championship title.