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Rivalry spawns volleyball dominance

The procession of cars waiting to turn into the school parking lot stretched so far down Kelly Road that the end of the line was but a blur of headlights. A Gaither-Chamberlain football game about to kick off? Not exactly. Inside the gym, a capacity crowd rocked to an M.C. Hammer tune on the loudspeaker and waited for the start of the game. Gibbs and Lakewood about to tangle in basketball? No, not this night.

Tucked away in the often overlooked world of private-school athletics is one of Tampa Bay's most heated high school rivalries. The Gibbs-Lakewood and Gaither-Chamberlain annual clashes may be more revered, but they have nothing on Berkeley Prep vs. Tampa Prep in girls volleyball.

Nowhere else in the Tampa Bay area is this sport viewed so importantly. At Tampa Prep and Berkeley Prep, football and basketball take a back seat to volleyball.

And with good reason. In the past 10 years, the two schools have accounted for all 10 Class A state volleyball titles. Tampa Prep leads in that category with seven state championships, but Berkeley Prep has won the past two.

When you're talking about a rivalry, though, there's only one real statistic that matters: head-to-head matches. Berkeley Prep coach Randy Dagostino said Tampa Prep won every meeting between 1980 and '83, but since then Berkeley has won 18 of 29 matches.

"It's just like any of these other rivalries, like Duke-North Carolina," said Dagostino. "We've had some really successful seasons, but we just don't consider it a successful season unless we beat Tampa Prep. And I'm sure they feel the same way."

Although these BMW-driving student bodies may seem harmless, what with their plaid skirts and shirt-and-trouser outfits, they become as rowdy and as vocal as any sports fans. At one recent Tampa Prep-Berkeley Prep game, Tampa Prep fans threw dog biscuits at the Berkeley Prep team (they later got detention for it, though). And it's common for Tampa Prep fans to rip the heads off stuffed Smurf animal dolls that have the same baby blue and white colors of Berkeley.

"They get to hollering and jumping up and down and you think they're going to tear up the place," said Ray Wilson, who still attends Berkeley's games even though his daughter, Jennifer, now plays at Furman.

At this particular game Tuesday night at Berkeley Prep, the place was so packed with pompon-waving fans that some people sat on the floor. On one wall was a sign that read: "Eat, Eat, Turtle Meat" in reference to Tampa Prep's nickname, the Terrapins. The estimated 350 fans even tried to do a mini-wave.

Berkeley Prep (26-5) won the showdown 15-3, 15-8, the Bucs' second win over the Terps (24-6) in three meetings this season.

"We usually have a banner contest that just about covers the walls in the gym, and the things that are written on those banners can be pretty vicious," said Dagostino. "Both schools can be pretty vicious, really."

Said Tampa Prep player Annesley Smith: "When we lose, it's not easy to take. A loss to them stays with me for a while."

It's the common threads that connect the two schools that have made them such enemies, the coaches said. Both schools compete in Class A, District 9, and thus almost always meet in the district finals.

The intensity of the rivalry heightened in 1983 when Dagostino, who had started the Tampa Prep program with his ex-wife Carol three years earlier, left the school to take over at Berkeley Prep. Carol stayed behind to coach Tampa Prep.

Because of the coaches' extensive volleyball expertise, what evolved were two highly trained machines. Randy and Carol coach Tampa Bay-area teams that annually compete in the Junior Olympic development league, which promotes nationwide tournaments featuring some of the country's best teams. And many players from Tampa Prep and Berkeley Prep participate in the competitions from December through June.

In fact, during these off-season tournaments, Randy sometimes coaches Tampa Prep players and Carol often works with Berkeley Prep players.

"What happens is you don't want to lose to someone you know very well," Randy said.

In their effort to top each other, both schools have pretty much left the rest of the Hillsborough volleyball competition behind. Much of their schedule is made up of out-of-town opponents, some of them Class 4A teams that they beat regularly. Both schools even participate in a national tournament in Chicago every year.

Like a college team, the two schools scout opponents and study videotapes of games. Combined, the two schools probably have sent more than 25 athletes to college on full or partial volleyball scholarships, both coaches said.

"It's all fun, productive and beneficial to the promotion of volleyball," said Carol. "Anything that promotes volleyball, I'm all for."

There'll be a twist to the Berkeley Prep-Tampa Prep rivalry beginning next year when Berkeley Prep moves up to Class 2A. Both coaches said the change shouldn't affect the rivalry because they still plan two regular-season meetings.

Even if things simmer down between these two teams, there's more trouble on the horizon. Tampa Prep recently started a boys volleyball program, and Berkeley Prep says its boys program isn't far behind.

"It'll be great," said Carol.