TAMPA — Before every practice this season, Tampa Prep coach Mike Flynn lines up his players facing the north wall of the gymnasium, where 15 state volleyball championship banners hang.
With every accomplishment, they take a step forward, every setback — a step back.
"Sometimes we took steps backward because we weren't ready for that yet," Flynn said. "So it kind of symbolizes our journey to that wall."
Now, this group of Terrapins is closer than it has ever been. Tampa Prep (15-13) will face Miami Palmer Trinity (25-8) in tonight's Class 2A state semifinal at the Lakeland Center.
It is Tampa Prep's first trip to the state final four since 2004, when the Terps last raised a championship banner.
"There's nothing we'd want more than to have our names on a banner, too," senior middle hitter Dana Malinowski said.
For a senior class — Malinowski, outside hitter Alena Ransom and defensive specialist Anna Dalence — that has never been to this level and has battled through its share of adversity, it's something to relish.
"For the three of us, it's the first time and the last time," Ransom said. "We're proud of our school, we're proud that we go here, but it's not a sense of entitlement because we go to Tampa Prep.
"We come here every day and try to work twice as hard as anybody else because we have to. You just don't get it when you walk in."
The Terrapins have definitely earned this trip to Lakeland. They survived a tenacious schedule, taking on all comers.
They took their lumps. They overcame a last-place finish in the Tampa Bay Invitational, a prestigious tournament they host. In mid-October, they were 8-11 but held to the notion that their schedule would aptly prepare them for the playoffs. Proof came when they survived a five-game match with Northside Christian in the region final.
"They've seen a lot of things that the other three teams in the final four haven't," Flynn said. "They know about that 'uh-oh' moment in the playoffs. We've come through the fire and got it done. I like our chances because of that.
"I think any championship team has to see some kind of failure."
Ransom said she and her teammates are better for that failure.
"We have a really good mentality right now," she said. "We're at the point now where we can't have any doubt. We have to put all doubts to rest. There's no more room and there's no more time for any of that to happen."