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Knights volleyball redefines itself with new coach, new attitude

TAMPA — There isn't much of a volleyball history at Robinson.

The Knights haven't won a district title in 32 years. Last year, they won just two games, one by forfeit. In fact, this year, they entered August without a head coach.

That's what makes this fall's rebirth so remarkable. The Knights head into tonight's district home match against Steinbrenner with an opportunity to take first place in Class 4A-9.

"This year is a complete turnaround," said first-year coach Ryan Wheatley, an active-duty Air Force medic at MacDill who was an assistant coach last season before taking the head coaching job. "Listening to the stories coming in, I just thought, 'Okay, let's see how it goes.' The whole mentality has changed around a lot."

The Knights (6-4) have won six of their past seven, including a three-set win over Strawberry Crest last week that set the stage for tonight's matchup between the only teams unbeaten in district play.

"We been training the entire year for that," said sophomore right-side hitter Sophia Tahiri. "Once we started winning games we began to think, 'Yeah, we can do this.' We actually had faith in ourselves."

A youth movement has changed the mentality at Robinson. Sophomore libero Leslie Gibson leads Hillsborough County with digs (5.1 a game). The Knights' starting setter, Melissa Weathers, is a freshman, and freshman middle hitter Lexi Gaertner, the team's leading blocker, has emerged as a front-row presence.

"Once we got girls in the right positions, it all kind of just came together," said captain Nicole Mello, the team's only starting senior. "Even out of school you feel different. Before people used to say, 'Oh, you go to Robinson, you guys aren't good.' Now you have that sense of accomplishment that you are good."

There's a special eye on that lonely district title banner from 1978 hanging in the gymnasium.

"They look at that banner every day where it says the last district win was 1978," Wheatley said. "They look up at that and they all say we want to have our year up there and that determination shows every day."

Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at

Knights volleyball redefines itself with new coach, new attitude 10/07/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 7, 2009 9:39pm]
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