VALRICO — There is a time when a sport transcends mere competition. A moment when the final point total is an afterthought.
At 7:30 Tuesday night, high school rivals Plant and host Bloomingdale will meet in a district volleyball match that will decide first place.
Though a win is crucial for both programs, the ultimate goal is to send a message, loud and clear, to a former Tampa Bay area volleyball player and to those everywhere affected by cancer.
Amber Walker, a former volleyball player at Pasco-Hernando Community College who played with Bloomingdale coach Margeaux Sinibaldi and Plant assistant Danielle Durham at Venice High, roughly 65 miles south of the Hillsborough County line, is in Tennessee undergoing treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma. She's 26.
“When she got sick, I went to Danielle and said we have to do this for her,” Sinibaldi said. “I want her to do it, because athletics and volleyball is what brought us together.”
Longtime friends and now opposing coaches, Sinibaldi and Durham orchestrated a support rally to coincide with the district match.
Walker's family, still living in Venice, will be in attendance.
“It is a big game, but one of our best friends is going through a lot,” Durham said. “At this point, the game isn't that big of a deal anymore.”
Sinibaldi and Durham could have supported Walker privately, but since volleyball brought them together, it was only fitting they do it during a match — together.
When the coaches told their players what they wanted to do, neither side flinched at the idea. Each athlete chose a loved one affected by cancer to play for on Tuesday. Each of those names, more than 30, will be printed on T-shirts the players will wear.
“We just want the family to know Amber isn't in this alone,” Durham said. “We're not going to raise a ton of money, but anything will help. It's all about support.”
Walker, formerly Davidson, was a libero for two years at PHCC. In her second year with the program, she ranked third in the National Junior College Athletic Association with 6.86 digs per game while leading PHCC to the Suncoast Conference championship. Sinibaldi went on to play at the University of Tampa, while Durham played at Florida Southern in Lakeland. Throughout college, the friends stayed in touch.
At Venice High, one of the top volleyball programs in the state, Sinibaldi and Durham said Walker was the ultimate teammate and competitor.
“She was one of those players, she was one of the strongest players I've come across, physically and mentally,” Durham said. “She was the girl you went to if you needed anything.”
Said Sinibaldi: “There's no doubt she's going to beat this, because she's one of the toughest people you'll know.”