Advertisement
  1. Sports
  2. /
  3. HomeTeam

Top-seeded University of Tampa set to host NCAA Division II volleyball championship

For the first time since 2015, the Spartans will host the tournament’s final three rounds, including Saturday’s title match.
University of Tampa attacker Kalli Cors (15) is second on the team with 319 kills this season.
University of Tampa attacker Kalli Cors (15) is second on the team with 319 kills this season. [ University of Tampa / Alfonso Mirabel ]
Published Dec. 9, 2021
Updated Dec. 9, 2021

University of Tampa coach Chris Catanach and his squad learned a valuable lesson in 2015 as the Spartans were set to host the final rounds of the NCAA Division II volleyball tournament.

The team focused too much during the year on playing in the tournament it was hosting, which was easy to do following its 2014 national title run. But too much internal pressure resulted in what Catanach called a “sad affair” as the Spartans exited with a five-set loss to Florida Southern in the second round.

“We spent a lot of time that season, too much time, stressing trying to get back and be in our own event,” Catanach said. “And it backfired.”

This year, Catanach and his staff knew they had to do things differently. It’s why the idea of hosting the final three rounds this weekend has been in the back of their minds — until now.

After besting West Florida in the region final on Saturday, the top-seeded Spartans will play No. 8 Augusta in the quarterfinal round Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the Bob Martinez Athletics Center.

With three wins, the program will clinch its fourth national title. The others came in 2006, 2014 and 2018.

“This group is pretty experienced ... with this goal in mind of making the Elite Eight,” Catanach said. “To have an experienced group do that is pretty special.”

UT (31-2) will take an 18-match win streak into Thursday’s contest. The Spartans’ last loss was Oct. 8 vs. Nova Southeastern, the same team they defeated in the region semifinals last Friday.

University of Tampa attacker Katie McKiel (11) leads the Spartans with 328 kills this season.
University of Tampa attacker Katie McKiel (11) leads the Spartans with 328 kills this season. [ University of Tampa / Tim Britt ]

Senior attacker Katie McKiel believes the loss was a wake-up call for the team, which lacked focus at the time. Up to that point, its only loss had come three games into the season against Northwest Missouri State.

“After we lost to (Nova Southeastern) at home, we just sat down and humbled ourselves,” McKiel said. “We knew we were going to lose that game. We weren’t doing what we needed to do at practice. There were a lot of simple things we weren’t being accountable for.”

McKiel is one of five players on the team who won the national title in 2018. She, Melissa Elias, Sarah Luoma, Sorrel Houghton and Taylor Fosler have been key to maintaining the Spartans’ “gym culture” throughout the season.

“It’s invaluable (having them around),” said Catanach, who is coaching in his 38th season at UT. “... When you have a really young team, you spend hours instilling, ‘This is how we do things. We run here, we cheer on this, we commit to all of these balls,’ and then having the upperclassmen throughout practices and games, they just know how we want it done and you don’t have to constantly do that teaching and policing.”

Outside hitter Kalli Cors, whose 319 kills are second-most on the team to McKiel’s 328, said the veteran players have been crucial to the team’s success.

“Just having that confidence from them really helps me, personally, when I’m playing,” said Cors, 19, of St. Petersburg. “They’re not pressuring us to have this insane season or anything like that, especially for the seniors and their last season, they just know we can do this.”

University of Tampa attacker Kalli Cors blocks a ball during a Spartans volleyball match. Cors has logged 16 solo blocks and 48 block assists so far this season.
University of Tampa attacker Kalli Cors blocks a ball during a Spartans volleyball match. Cors has logged 16 solo blocks and 48 block assists so far this season. [ University of Tampa / Tim Britt ]

But that doesn’t mean they don’t recognize the tremendous opportunity that’s in front of them.

”It’s been two years since we’ve been (this far) in the postseason,” McKiel, 23, said. “So in a way, I feel like a freshman, again, with the nerves and jitters. I forgot how exciting it is, and a lot of us have done a good job of, as exciting as it is and such a cool opportunity (at home), we just want to soak it in … and (realize) this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and enjoy the moment.”

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.