By CANDACE MARTINO
It was all about the seniors in Saturday’s matinee showdown that featured the No. 22 ranked Tampa Spartans (19-6, 9-3 SSC) and their win over the Florida Tech Panthers (6-18, 0-12 SSC) in a decisive fourth and final set (25-19, 17-25, 25-23, 25-15). The Bob Martinez center was decked out with red and black decorations as the volleyball program celebrated the careers of three seniors, Leigh Buttner, Ana Maria Pagan, and Allee Stelogeannis for the very last time.
“I could definitely feel the emotions prior to senior night’s game as soon as I walked out to observe the posters of pictures that displayed the last four years of playing at Tampa,” said Buttner, an outside hitter for the Spartans. “Seeing pictures from freshman, sophomore, and junior year definitely brought me to realize what a long, yet fun journey it’s been here.”
The graduating trio was accompanied by relatives and friends who escorted the players onto the court. A ceremony was held prior to the start of the match that recognized what was considered the final time any of the seniors would take the court at home.
“It’s eye opening when you come to understand these are the final times spent playing in Martinez gym. You come to realize how many hours you’ve spent training the past four years and appreciate that game a little more than any other,” Buttner said.
Stelogeannis got off to a hot start representing the seniors early, recording four kills, and pacing the offensive tempo. Junior outside hitter Molly McAlvany and sophomore middle blocker Alexandra Misca helped out with three apiece, as the team posted a blistering .333 hitting percentage and earned 20 points. Combined, their efforts were enough to take set one 25-19, and shape senior night the way they imagined.
“The seniors mean a lot to us. We lost a huge senior class the year before, but we were all disappointed with last season’s finish, and one of the major improvements these seniors have made this year is with our culture,” said assistant coach Brian Imperiale. “Allee, Leigh, and Ana have all played a role in shaping the practice environment and our overall team preparation for matches.”
In the second set the Panthers came to life taking a demanding 25-17 lead to even out the match 1-1. The Spartans fell behind as they committed 13 errors and forced FIT to earn only 12 points to win the set.
“The second set was just rough all around,” Imperiale said. “We started to let down late in the first and just couldn’t get out of our own way in the second. We sided out at 33 percent, probably a low for the season.”
Although Tampa’s dubious efforts caused for a slow start, the Spartans were able to outlast the Panthers for the remainder of play. UT eventually caught up to take a 23-22 lead over the Panthers to claim the third set. The shift of momentum came from McAlvany who blasted a five-kill barrage while Misca and Stelogeannis accounted for four each in the set. Sophomore libero Logan Holanchock was all over the defensive end, charting 11 digs, pushing her over the 1000th dig career mark, making her only the 13th Spartan to ever do so.
UT finished off the match in a likely manor as Stelogeannis posted a three-kill effort to cap off senior night, 25-15.
“The atmosphere for senior night was great. It’s always great looking back on the seniors careers and having so many of their family members in attendance. But I like said before, the last chapter isn’t over,” Imperiale said.
Tampa will get to play at home one more time for a rescheduled match against Barry University before preparing for the regional tournament. UT is one of two teams ranked in the region.
“With our season dwindling down to our final matches, our team is focusing on becoming a stronger team itself and not so much worrying about the other teams,” Buttner said. “We’re more concentrated on what our team can control and less worried about the other side of the court.”
Candace Martino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org