She has absorbed bumps and bruises this season, but University of Tampa volleyball player Luanne Baldwin has inflicted her share of punishment as well. The 6-foot-1 outside hitter has shaken off an early-season ankle injury and a recent automobile accident to become the team's biggest bruiser at the net as the season enters the stretch drive.
"I've always had strength," said Baldwin, a Chamberlain High graduate in her junior season at UT. "I was the kid in Little League who could throw the furthest."
Baldwin played on the UT softball team last spring but hung up her spikes in favor of her top sport, volleyball. Concentrating on volleyball has paid off with a team-leading 373 kills and a .327 kill percentage. She was named MVP of last weekend's Tampa Invitational, where she accumulated 101 kills in five matches.
Baldwin and the Spartans face a stern test tonight, when undefeated Florida Southern invades the Bob Martinez Sports Center for a Sunshine State Conference match. With middle hitter Kim Dix hobbled by a groin pull suffered Tuesday, the Spartans will need Baldwin's roundhouse kills.
UT coach Chris Catanach said Baldwin's progress has been a highlight of the season. "When I recruited her, she had ability but no volleyball skills," Catanach said. "Her first year, she didn't even go on some out-of-town trips. But she was aggressive and somewhat athletic. I guess you could say she has been a pleasant surprise."
It's no surprise that Florida Southern is heavily favored in tonight's match. The Moccasins are 28-0 and ranked fifth in Division II by the NCAA and eighth by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. The Mocs are 7-0 in SSC play, including a 15-5, 15-12, 17-15 victory over the Spartans Sept.
Southern returns five starters and its top reserve from the 35-7 team that placed fourth at the NCAA nationals.
Tampa is 22-6 overall, 6-1 in the SSC, and ranked 18th by the NCAA and 19th by the AVCA.
Southern has five consecutive victories over Tampa, which has not beaten the Mocs since 1988, but UT extended its own winning streak to eight by beating Division I Stetson on Tuesday night.