TAMPA — It was campus move-in day for the University of Tampa volleyball team on Aug. 12. "A happy, exciting time," said Spartans senior libero Kasey Reynolds. "We were all together."
Then came unthinkable news.
Spartans coach Chris Catanach, shaken and emotional, announced that former UT star and three-time first-team All-American Melissa Vanderhall had been murdered in New York.
"When we heard, the room went still and everyone went cold," Spartans sophomore middle blocker Taylor Fosler said. "To most of us, she was a name we had heard. We hadn't met her. Maybe we had seen a picture. Who was this girl?
"Then we had a lot of former players come to talk to us. When we learned what kind of person Melissa was, when we saw the emotion they had for her, it made you love her."
Current and former Spartan volleyball players have rallied around the memory of Vander-hall, who played at UT from 2006-10.
Vanderhall's initials and number — MV 24 — will be featured on a uniform patch worn all season by Spartan players. On Sept. 23, UT will hold the "Live For 24 Memorial Match" when Lynn University faces the Spartans in a 4 p.m. Sunshine State Conference meeting at the Martinez Sports Center.
Through the "Live For 24 Fund," organizers hope to raise money for two scholarships, one at UT and one at Uniondale (N.Y.) High School, Vanderhall's alma mater. T-shirts will be sold and donations accepted at the Lynn-UT match. Afterward, everyone is welcome to attend a celebration of Vanderhall's life at the Sword and Shield Room.
Vanderhall, 29, was killed during a triple-homicide hammer attack, along with her mother and a friend, at the family's home on Long Island. Vanderhall's brother, Bobby, who had a history of emotional problems, was arrested and charged with the murders.
"Obviously, we are all devastated and heartbroken," said former UT player Margeaux Sinibaldi, one of Vanderhall's teammates, and a chief organizer of the Live For 24 Fund. "But within the blink of an eye, we went into action and decided we were going to do something.
"We spoke to the current players to let them know wearing her number 24 was an honor and how much it means to us. We wanted them to understand that Melissa was the epitome of a teammate. Regardless of her honors, she was a teammate first and foremost. Now that they know more about her as a person, I think they have embraced her legacy even more."
Catanach said he believes Vanderhall became the personification of an ideal student-athlete. He was startled when receiving her high-school videotape and identifying her as a prospect. She had raw skills, but amazing potential. He called in an assistant to say, "Are you seeing what I'm seeing? Is this real? Is the net at the correct height?"
Vanderhall developed into an All-American, but she was always the first to celebrate a teammate's success. She was active in community service during her UT years, becoming a Big Sister to a Tampa youth. She stayed in touch with her Little Brother, now a 16-year-old Jefferson High School student. The boy attended Vanderhall's funeral.
Vanderhall also became an academic All-American, graduating with a 3.2 grade-point average in allied health. She pursued further education, achieving her dream of becoming a physician's assistant.
"Everything you talk about or preach as a coach — practicing hard, reaching your potential, supporting your teammates, being a good person, working on your academics, standing up for causes in the community — that was Melissa," Catanach said.
Now the current UT players understand.
"Wearing the patch of her number, we made it a goal as a team that it will be a trigger for us on the court," Reynolds said. "When we're struggling or we need a little spark, we're all going to point to the patch and up (to the sky) and say, 'We're together now. This is for her. Let's do this.'
"When I heard the news, I felt like I was going to cry and I didn't even know her. She left a big impact on this program. We were concerned about coach (Catanach) because he was invested in her life. Now we feel invested, too. She's definitely a part of us now."
Fosler said the current UT players "feel her legacy on our shoulders."
"I think the patch is a good reminder of what we play for," Fosler said. "Even though we didn't really know her, she's still a part of us. We're playing for something bigger than ourselves."
The players expect an emotional atmosphere on Sept. 23. It's UT vs. Lynn — and Lynn, ironically enough, was the first name of Vanderhall's mother.