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Spartans face lone conqueror once again

University of Tampa veteran volleyball players are all too familiar with a struggle with Barry for the No. 1 Sunshine State Conference slot. Though they are a year older and wiser, the Spartans find themselves in the same position they were in last season.

Tonight, No. 2 Tampa (25-1, 7-1) travels to No. 6 Barry (21-3, 8-0) at 7:30. UT has a chance to tie Barry for the SSC lead. Also, regional playoff seedings are at stake. At 2 p.m. Saturday, the Spartans play Lynn in Boca Raton.

"We've all experienced this before," sophomore middle blocker Becky Hart said. "We're used to it now, so we are prepared to handle this kind of a situation. We realize that this is probably one of the most important games that we will play."

UT trails the series against Barry 14-6, including a 3-1 Barry win at Tampa Oct. 4, still the only Spartan loss. UT swept its only match ever with Lynn last month.

"It sounds odd, but I think losing to Barry was one of the best things that could have happened," senior middle hitter Melissa Serio said. "I think that our confidence level is a lot higher going into this game than the last. I'm sure that there will be some nervousness, after all it is Barry. But I think that we are ready."

Serio led the Spartans to 13 wins in 14 matches in October to win the SSC athlete of the month. She led the team with a .430 hitting percentage (115 kills, 26 errors and 207 attacks). Since its loss, the Spartans have won 42 of 44 games.

Serio isn't the only player who thinks that UT is ready for Barry.

"I'm very confident that we can go out there and win," Danielle Faggion said. "Last year there were no high expectations for us, they were more like dreams. But now our immediate goals are set, and this year we go in with experience, so there are no excuses. Everyone has to want to win."

After the Barry loss, UT's hitting percentage was .252 and it averaged only 1.6 blocks per game. Those numbers have since improved to .280 and 2.17 overall.

Junior hitter Dawn Rawlins said although the team felt bad about the loss, she is happy it has a goal to pursue.

"We still want to be No.

1," Rawlins said. "But now, because we're not in the lead, we really have to go after it. When you're in the lead, your attitude is a lot different because there is no chance to move up, but now we have set a goal and the team has to go to Miami ready to play and fight harder to get on top."

Coach Chris Catanach said this match is the perfect way to measure the team's improvement.

"We have identified this match as a key one, and we are very excited to play Barry," he said. "I anticipate them playing three great games. All we want is to be able to match their force and play strong."

Assistant coach Jeff Reavis said he noticed a marked difference in the team attitude going into such an important match.

"When I hear players saying things like 'I think we're ready', and 'I'm really excited' it tells me that they just didn't know how good they could be last year," he said. "Now they are going into the game actually believing they can win."