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Triple threat, triple trek
UT women's teams hit the road with national crowns the ultimate prize.
By JOEY KNIGHT
Published November 15, 2006
TAMPA - Roughly three-dozen coeds from the University of Tampa embarked Tuesday morning on an eight-hour road trip to the Panhandle that will result in nearly a week's worth of missed classes.
And school administrators couldn't be more giddy.
"Oh, I think there's a great deal of pride and support," athletic director Larry Marfise said.
Bypassing all the beach exits, this group, consisting of the UT women's volleyball and women's soccer teams, headed north Tuesday on Interstate 75, hung a left on I-10 and landed smack in uncharted territory.
Or more specifically, the NCAA Division II Fall Sports Festival in Pensacola.
On Thursday, the Spartans women's cross country team will meet them there for what school officials say will be an unprecedented weekend in UT athletics: three Spartans teams competing for national titles in the same city at essentially the same time.
"It's very rare," Marfise said. "We're very lucky."
The Olympic-type event, held at three venues in Escambia County, will feature more than 70 teams and 800 athletes vying for titles in men's and women's cross country, men's and women's soccer, women's field hockey and women's volleyball.
The proximity of the events will allow the Spartans teams to cheer on each other. The soccer team's national semifinal match Thursday against Grand Valley State starts at 11 a.m.; the volleyball team's Elite Eight match against Dowling begins the same day at 2:30.
The title matches for both sports are Saturday, with soccer set for 11 a.m. and volleyball at 5. The NCAA cross country championships are Saturday at 10 a.m.
"I think it will be nice to have some of your fans there in the crowd there to support," women's soccer coach Bobby Johnston said Tuesday morning, just before boarding the team charter bus for Pensacola.
"You don't have that too often in national championships, but it's going to be nice. I think it's going to be definitely a little bit inspiring for the girls to play in front of some of the fans that they've played in front of all year."
Path to the Panhandle
The No. 5-ranked women's soccer team (18-2-1) earned the program's first Final Four berth with Saturday night's 5-0 victory over Tusculum at Pepin Stadium. Earlier that day, across the street at the Martinez Sports Center, the second-ranked volleyball team (32-1) topped Florida Gulf Coast in four games to earn an Elite Eight berth.
The cross country team, which lost several key seniors, including three-time Sunshine State Conference runner of the year Allison Macsas to graduation, finished second at the NCAA South Regional on Nov. 4 to qualify for nationals.
"Coach (Jarrett) Slaven did an unbelievable job with a lot of these girls," Marfise said. "Who ever would've thought on an urban campus we'd have a national championship contender in cross country?"
Marfise said school officials initially "toyed with the idea" of chartering a bus for students and fans to Pensacola before it fizzled. Nonetheless, he said he expects a strong local contingent in the Panhandle.
UT sports information director Tom Kolbe said the 500-plus fans who attended Saturday's soccer match was a program record. The 1,145 who attended the Spartans' four-game home volleyball triumph Nov. 3 against Florida Southern was a conference record.
"We've had without a doubt our biggest support we've had in the eight years since I've been here," Marfise said.
And the oncampus celebration that will ensue should the Spartans bring home three national titles?
"We'll have to talk to President (Ronald) Vaughn about that," Johnston said, laughing.
"I can't really look that far ahead," added women's soccer goalkeeper Shannon Aitken, who has allowed only 12 goals in 21 matches. "I don't know; I can't even picture it."