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Ex-volleyball rivals team up for Spartan victory

Katelen Dixon and Tarah Marinelli were foes in high school. They both played volleyball, but for rival teams.

Dixon was a standout hitter for Mitchell High in New Port Richey, while Marinelli held her own at Hudson High School.

But that was several years ago.

Today, Dixon and Marinelli are good friends and national college champions - on the same team.

Dixon, a junior, and Marinelli, a senior, are outside hitters for the University of Tampa's volleyball team. They keyed Tampa's run to the NCAA Division II national title in the school's third trip to the finals. The university's Spartans (35-1) were runnersup in 1996 and 1999. This time, the team defeated North Alabama 3-1 on Nov. 18 at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.

For Dixon and Marinelli, the friendship they share has become as special as their recent victory.

"Three years ago, I never thought I'd be playing alongside a past opponent," Dixon said. "It's amazing that now we have this extreme bond."

"You always admire the players you play against in high school," Marinelli said. Dixon, she said, "was always one of the top players in the (Sunshine Athletic Conference)."

Tampa coach Chris Catanach echoed that sentiment, labeling Dixon "our all-around top player."

After the playoffs, Dixon was named an All-American Volleyball Coaches Association first-teamer. This season, she had a team-leading 443 kills and surpassed 1,000 for her career.

Marinelli, an All-SAC middle hitter at Hudson, converted to an outside hitter in college. The transition was a work in progress during her four seasons.

"At first I struggled with my approach," she said. "But by my senior year my ball control had improved tenfold."

Added Catanach, "She goes out knowing that she put it all together."

Unfinished business

The Spartans wore the slogan "unfinished business" on the back of their practice jerseys in reference to the bittersweet 2005 playoffs that saw them qualify for nationals, but bow out in the semifinals.

"That unfinished business thing was our motivation all year," Dixon said. "Any time we were down on ourselves we'd just think, 'We have unfinished business.'

"You have to keep pushing and pushing, and if you want it bad enough it'll happen. But you have to be patient, because it won't happen every year."

The Spartans picked up their championship rings Monday to go along with watches handed out at nationals.

"When people ask what time it is, I don't mind showing them," Dixon said. Her watch has "2006 Division II National Volleyball Championship" engraved on the face.

Shhh, it's a secret

One of the finer moments Dixon and Marinelli shared this season came off the court. Marinelli kept secret a surprise visit from Dixon's older sister, Erin. The sisters both played at Countryside High in 2001. Erin now lives in Charlotte, N.C.

"Kate's dad (Joe, who coached his daughter at Mitchell) was scared I was going to tell her," Marinelli said. "I keep good secrets."

"I had no idea whatsoever," Dixon said of a Nov. 3 lunch with Erin and her mother, Melody, at a Tampa restaurant. "I get there and open the door and there was my sister. I screamed."

Catanach can't wait to get one more productive season out of Dixon. As for Marinelli, a biology major who will pursue pre-med in graduate school, the Tampa coach has no doubt about a promising future.

"She's very career-driven," Catanach said. "She will go on and be successful."

Steve Lee can be reached at lee@sptimes.com or (352) 521-4567.

FAST FACTS

Katelen Dixon

A college junior and an outside hitter for the University of Tampa volleyball team.

High school: Mitchell, Class of 2004. She was two-time all-state, four-time All-Sunshine Athletic Conference and Times Pasco County Player of the Year as a senior. Set school records for kills and aces.

College: Led the Spartans with 443 kills this season and surpassed 1,000 career kills. Named an All-American and All-Sunshine State Conference first-teamer.

Dixon said it: "Nothing even compares to (Tampa winning a national title). It's just the greatest feeling you'll ever have."

Tarah Marinelli

A college senior and an outside hitter for the University of Tampa volleyball team.

High school: Hudson, Class of 2003. She was Hudson's career blocks leader and two-time All-SAC member. As a senior, she was a salutatorian and an all-state honorable mention.

College: Four-year player who made the transition from middle hitter to the outside.

Marinelli said it: "We thought we had the potential last year to win the national title. We lost and it hurt. We had the experience, we had the talent and we had the determination."

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