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After near-title, Academy looks to make playoff impact

A lot of people may not have noticed, but there is a volleyball team in south Tampa making some noise: Academy of the Holy Names.

The Jaguars started gaining attention a few weeks ago with a victory against Sarasota Cardinal Mooney, which was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the state's Class 3A poll at the time.

"That victory really gave us some confidence," Academy's first year coach Gregg Latter said. "That was big."

Then last Thursday, Academy almost pulled off the upset of the season in a 6-15, 16-14, 14-16 loss to Berkeley Prep.

"The Berkeley match was a moral victory of sorts for us," Latter said. "The bad thing would have been to go in there and get blown out. But we didn't. We fought hard and we nearly won.

"We'd definitely like to meet Berkeley one more time, but that would have to be in the state final with the way the playoffs are structured."

The Jaguars begin their next steps toward the state tournament today with the first round of regional action at Tampa Catholic.

Academy (19-11) has defeated the Crusaders twice this season in straight games, but Latter says he isn't taking anything for granted.

"It's the old cliche, one game at a time because anything can happen," Latter said. "Plus I know Tampa Catholic will be way up for this one. But I think my girls will be ready."

Leading the way will be a trio of seniors _ 5-foot-6 outside hitter Nicole Mullarkey, 5-10 middle blocker Nichole Bergman and 5-2 defensive specialist Sarah Tarrant. Kelly Jackson, a 5-10 junior setter, rounds out the core of the starting lineup.

"These girls have been just great," Latter said. "It's really a thing of the sum of the parts being better than the individuals. This has truly been a team effort."

The other county teams vying to advance after tonight's regionals include Berkeley Prep, Bloomingdale, Durant, Gaither and Tampa Prep.

The winners move onto a "final four" regional playoff on Friday, with the champion of those matches moving onto the state tournament at George Jenkins High in Lakeland.

Durant (21-3 and ranked No. 3 in Class 5A) may have the toughest road to state, considering No. 1-ranked Clearwater and No. 2-ranked St. Thomas Aquinas are expected to be in the Cougars' path.

"It doesn't bother us," Durant coach Teri Ohme said. "We figure we'll meet those teams sooner or later. So it might as well be sooner."

Tonight, however, the Cougars must defeat Sarasota to move on.