TAMPA - When Bayshore Christian takes the floor against Winter Haven's All Saints' Academy in tonight's Region 2 match, it would be easy to say it's the most important match of the season.
But that would not be entirely true. Bayshore Christian's season may have started a couple of months ago, but it began to take shape a couple of weeks ago.
Academy of the Holy Names, a Class 3A school, defeated Bayshore Christian on Oct.11, sending the defending state champion reeling and searching for answers internally.
"Everyone was so frustrated because we weren't playing up to our potential," sophomore captain Adria Mullaney said. "Coach (Melanie Humenansky) sat us down but didn't say a word. All of us just stood up and spoke our minds about what was wrong."
And it might be that loss and subsequent closed-door meeting that eventually will open the door for another run at a state title.
"There was a lot of emotion that poured out that night," Humenansky said.
It also was the last match the Faith Warriors lost.
Bayshore Christian (19-5) won out during the rest of the regular season and defeated rival Cambridge last week to capture the district crown. Senior middle blocker Sarah Weiler said the loss to the Jaguars was the wake-up call the Faith Warriors needed before the postseason.
"That game was a real slap in the face," Weiler said. "But it helped us because we've pulled together since."
Bayshore Christian, with only one senior on its roster last season, surprised many by winning the state title. But if the Faith Warriors were underdogs last year, this season brought a new label: favorites.
"There was a level of stress and pressure that didn't exist last year," Humenansky said. "They knew that all eyes were on them."
While there were increased expectations, the Faith Warriors didn't exactly fold under the pressure. All five of Bayshore Christian's losses have come against schools in higher classifications.
"But you could see the team was playing to get by rather than playing to win," Humenansky said. "After that loss, the team really began to come together and started playing up to their potential."
Senior Stevi Cherry and Mullaney share captain duties and according to Humenansky are the "yin and yang" of the team when it comes to leadership. Cherry prefers to lead quietly by example; Mullaney is more vocal.
"You can see the team rally and step up their play when Stevi starts playing well," Humenansky. "Adria is such a strong motivator and natural player. The girls tease her that she came out of the womb with a volleyball in her hands."
All Saints' Academy is the first obstacle standing between Bayshore Christian and back-to-back state titles. After the lessons learned against the Jaguars, the Faith Warriors think they have the formula to repeat.
"We're going to leave it all out on the floor, regardless of our opponent," Mullaney said. "We'll just take it one point at a time."