TAMPA — Even in the rare years when either Berkeley Prep or Tampa Prep was in the midst of a down season, fans still would pack the gym, students would still paint their faces and players would still get a little more nervous during opening points when the teams would meet.
But this isn't one of those years, which should add even more excitement to the county's top volleyball rivalry.
"There's nothing like this experience anywhere," Berkeley Prep coach Randy Dagostino said. "It's the highlight of every season I've coached."
Said Tampa Prep coach Mike Flynn: "It's the closest to a college atmosphere that any match is. You can say what you want about Armwood and Plant (football), but Berkeley-Tampa Prep volleyball in terms of the expectations, the atmosphere and the demands placed on the players is different."
As the teams prepare for their first meeting Tuesday at Berkeley Prep, the programs — which have combined for 27 state championships — are both focused on the state championships in Lakeland, where they will aim for putting another banner on the gymnasium wall.
And for first time in a few years, both are legitimate state contenders. Both entered this weekend — Tampa Prep played at a tournament in Fort Myers while Berkeley played at the Gator Classic in Gainesville — undefeated. And both own victories over Class 5A power Venice.
"Whether we're looking across that net at green uniforms from Venice or that wonderful Berkeley blue, tongue in cheek, we're using them to make us better," Flynn said.
Tampa Prep hasn't won a state title since 2004, and Dagostino's Berkeley squad fell in title games in 2005 and 2006. This season, Tampa Prep boasts three senior starters: middle blocker Dana Malinowski, outside hitter Alena Ransom and libero Ana Dalence. Berkeley libero Christina Theofilos is surrounded by a talented cast of younger players, highlighted by junior Lindsay Young.
"They come in a little older than we are," Dagostino said. "But I really like the group we have. This should be an exciting game to watch."