The Bloomingdale girls volleyball team is integrating a Spartan philosophy.
Not ancient Greek Spartans, but University of Tampa Spartans.
"It's always been our philosophy here (at the University of Tampa) that you don't grow until you push the envelope," said Spartans coach Chris Catanach, winner of the 2006 Division II National Championship and two-time AVCA Coach of the year.
The adage rings true: "The toughest steel is forged in the hottest fire."
Catanach's approach is not uncommon in the sports. However, his influence can be directly felt in the Bloomingdale Bulls girls volleyball team. Head coach Margeaux Sinibaldi is a product of UT volleyball and was a three-time All-American libero on that 2006 championship team.
Sinibaldi's predecessor, Danielle Leffler, and even Sinibaldi's current assistant and JV coach, Julie Howlett, are both UT volleyball alums.
Sinibaldi's coaching philosophy is not far off from Catanach's and it is very Spartan.
"I owe it to them (her team) to show them what they are capable of," Sinibaldi said. "I want to put them in situations, even if they don't win, where it helps them realize their ability."
Sinibaldi has put this into practice by scheduling a brutal series of tournaments that are testing her young team's mettle. The Bulls are becoming the "we'll take on anyone" team in Hillsborough County.
The early schedule included a tri-match against Sarasota volleyball powerhouses Venice and Cardinal Mooney. It also featured appearances in the Academy of the Holy Names Invitational and the prestigious Berkeley Premier Tournament.
The demanding matches have yielded mixed results. The Bulls lost both matches in the tri-match. They fared better at the Academy tournament — beating Nature Coast, Tampa Catholic and Plant, all 2011 playoffs teams, before losing to East Lake in the final.
But they struggled at Berkeley.
However, the goal is not to win every match, but get the team accustomed to playing at a higher level so when they come back and play a local team, they are a step faster and more prepared.
"I'm trying to instill a winning mentality with these girls," Sinibaldi said. "The Plants, the Durants, they have that and it only comes from winning (titles)."
The big test came at the Premier Tournament, which is recognized as one of the top tournaments — perhaps the top — in the state. It attracted four defending state champions, two state finalists and four regional finalists in a field totaling just 16.
Bloomingdale drew defending 3A state champ First Academy of Orlando, 6A state finalist Fort Myers, and 3A regional champion Westminster Christian. The Bulls went 0-5, eventually losing to county rival AHN in a consolation round.
"There is a fine line between developing a winning psyche and bringing in a psychologist to deal with losing," Catanach said.
It's a risk Sinibaldi is willing to take and a challenge she believes her team can handle.
"We are playing the teams we need to, to prepare ourselves for districts," Sinibaldi said. "It doesn't matter what our record is when we get there (districts), it matters what we do when we get there."
Class 8A, District 7, may be the toughest in Hillsborough County with perennial power Plant, red-hot and currently undefeated Wharton, three-time state champion Durant, and solid teams at Newsome and Alonso.
Bloomingdale cruised into the 2011 playoffs with a 4-1 district record, tied for the No. 1 seed. They blew past Brandon but lost to Durant, a team they had beaten in the regular season.
This year they stand at 10-9 but could prove to be even more formidable come playoff time. It all depends on whether this Spartan approach builds psyche or requires psychologists. The athletes seem to be buying in.
"I feel like we have to play better teams to get our play up to their level," sophomore outside hitter Karissa Rhoades said.
Another good sign is that the Bulls, in their first match since Berkeley, dropped district rival Newsome on their own court Thursday night in four sets, 18-25, 26-24, 25-20, 25-20.
All that remains is for the steel to harden. It might happen before districts, it might not.
The Bulls are a young team. Leading hitter Rhoades is just a sophomore as is top middle hitter and blocking force Kaitlyn Grice. The two played club at Tampa Elite together and were even coached by Sinibaldi there. There are only four seniors on the team.
The Bulls host Plant Thursday and Wharton (Oct. 11) before the district playoffs start at Durant on Oct. 23. They might not be the team to beat but they are the team that can beat anyone.
Andy Warrener can be reached at [email protected]