Swept in the Swamp

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Dec 142003
 
Authors: Josh Pilkington

 

 

Gainesville, Fla. – Defeat. Loss. Upset.

Such words are virtually unknown to the members of the

University of Florida’s women’s volleyball team. One loss is what

the 33-1, third-seeded Gators had endured prior to facing

14th-seeded CSU Friday night at Florida’s O’Connell Center; one

loss that occurred in the team’s first match of the season against

top-ranked Southern California; one loss that remained one loss at

the conclusion of the team’s NCAA-record 33rd consecutive sweep of

an opponent.

A group of 3,136 boisterous Gator fans came out to support the

blue and orange in Florida’s quest to reach the regional finals and

a match against the No. 11 seed Penn State who upset sixth-seeded

Kansas State 3-1 in the previous match. The Rams did little to

impede the Gators’ quest.

Florida (34-1) exposed the overmatched Rams (33-5) with

remarkable speed on defense and lighting-quick jump serves from

senior Aury Cruz, who led Florida with 11 kills and six service

aces, to win in three games 30-13, 30-22, 30-26, ending the Rams’

23-game winning streak in the process.

“Florida is a physically talented team,” said CSU head coach Tom

Hilbert whose tea m failed to end the Gators’ now record 100-game

winning streak. “I’m proud of our players, we fought hard. Some

things could have gone our way to change the flow of the game, but

we didn’t capitalize on (those opportunities).”

Be it the pressure that comes with facing a national powerhouse

on its home court or the nerves that accompany a regional semifinal

appearance, the Rams did not open the match strong and it cost them

early.

“There were some nerves on our part,” conceded junior setter

Melissa Courtney after CSU allowed Florida to jump to an 11-0 lead

to begin the match. “But we fought back and didn’t let up.”

The Gators’ first point of Game 1 epitomized the flow of the

game as junior Michelle Chatman skied for one of her team-high

three blocks on the Rams’ first kill attempt and got the home crowd

into the game early.

“I don’t think the crowd affected (the Rams) negatively as much

as it affected us positively,” said Florida head coach Mary Wise of

the vocal audience. “They gave us a lot of energy (Friday

night).”

The Gators scored at will on CSU in Game 1 as Ram errors and

miscommunications led to a flurry of Gator points.

“Obviously allowing Florida to come out with a (big) run to

begin the match was an obstacle to overcome,” Hilbert said. “But

I’m proud of the way we settled down and played from that point

on.”

Indeed the Rams did manage to keep the match respectable after

that first game, but Florida’s defense never allowed CSU to get

into a rhythm.

“This is a very quick and athletic team,” Wise said of her

Gators. “Sometimes it looks like we have more than six players out

there. We thought that (the Rams) were the toughest opponent to

face in the regional semifinal; they had won (23) matches in a row

coming in and we knew they would show us some things that we had

not seen yet this year.”

Regardless of what the Rams showed the Gators it wasn’t

enough.

CSU battled well with Florida in Game 2 tightening the score at

22-24 late, but could not get any closer as the Gators ran off

eight consecutive points to take the game 22-30.

“They played fabulous defense,” said junior Becky Sarauer who

recorded 10 kills and a .190 hitting percentage. “We have to give

them credit.”

Indeed the Gators showed why they are the third-ranked team in

the nation holding the Rams to a .134 hitting percentage overall,

well below CSU’s average of .276 coming into the contest.

Middle blocker Katie Jo Shirley was one bright spot for the Rams

that managed to find some holes in the Gators’ defense. The junior

pegged a game-high 14 kills and .348 hitting percentage in the

loss.

“Katie Jo Shirley is a relentless player and tough to defend,”

Wise said. “She kept us on our toes throughout the game.”

With their surprising regular season at its end, the Rams

returned home Sunday and now turn their attention to next season

when the entire team returns to make another run at glory.

“Can we see ourselves winning matches like this?” Hilbert asked

rhetorically. “I think the answer is yes. We just have to get

better in a number of areas and we’ll do that with another

year.”

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