Thursday November 30, 20061996 Gainesville Regional: A Look Back
Florida reacts after defeating Michigan State
Florida reacts after defeating Michigan State
By Mike Vietti
A hatred of losing can propel people in all different kinds of directions.
For the 1996 Florida volleyball team, it meant one of the best seasons in Florida history.
The 1996 Gator squad became the first Florida team in school history to earn to the No. 1 ranking in the nation when UF rose to the top spot in early November. The target on Florida’s back had already grown sizable in the Southeastern Conference as the Gators had claimed the league titles in 1992-1995 and still breezed through the SEC schedule in 1996 with a perfect 14-0 mark.
After disposing of Illinois State in the second round of the NCAA Championship, the top-ranked Gators (35-1) entertained No. 7 Michigan State (25-6), No. 8 Long Beach State (33-2) and No. 12 Ohio State (27-5) to the Gainesville Regional.
The regional began with the Spartans taking down Long Beach State in four games 15-4, 13-15, 15-6, 15-8 as MSU’s Veronica Morales tied for the match high with 19 kills on .255 hitting, while adding 14 digs. The Spartans out-hit Long Beach State .235-.154 in the game with Michigan State collecting 15 blocks to just seven for the 49ers. Jenny Whitehead, who would later play for Florida, had 11 blocks in the match for the Spartans. Jenn Snyder paced Long Beach State with 19 kills and 11 digs, while Misty May had 46 assists and 20 digs.
Florida took on Ohio State in the next match in front a crowd of 1,977 fans and the Gators took the first game 15-8 before dropping the next two 14-16, 13-15.
“We had won the conference with great ease that year,” associate head coach Nick Cheronis said. “We had it wrapped up with four regular season matches to go. So, when it came time for the NCAA Tournament, we were still figuring out how good we were. Ohio State was really good, as we were struggling during the second game, I remember saying to Mary ‘If we can win this match, it will be a great training match for the rest of the tournament.’
“Fortunately, I remember Julie Stanhope just going off on the third game and she was blocking everything,” Cheronis said. “If it hadn’t been for Julie, we would have been done early.”
Stanhope collected a match-high nine blocks as the Gators collected 17.0 as a team and held Ohio State to .113 hitting in the fourth game and -.063 hitting in the fifth. Nina Foster dominated offensively with 22 kills on .459 hitting, while Stanhope also chimed in with 14 kills. Vanessa Wouters tallied a match-high 24 kills to lead Ohio State.
The Gators then clashed with Michigan State the following day before a crowd of 2,566 fans. After the Spartans captured the first game 15-7, the Gators responded by winning the final three 15-7, 15-9, 17-15 to earn the program’s third Final Four berth.
UF’s Aurymar Rodriguez dominated the match with 30 kills on .357, while adding 12 digs.
“We had moved Aury to the left side during the 1995 season, but it was in this match where she grew into an All-American.” Cheronis said. “I still remember the match point - I had moved her up closer to the end line so she would have a higher percentage chance of getting the serve in, but on match point she stepped on the end line while she was serving! The line judge waved for the violation, but for some reason the up official didn’t see it. Michigan State subsequently hit their attack out of bounds and the match was declared over. I was still sitting on the bench swearing to Jason Mau, our volunteer assistant at the time, ‘She stepped on the ENDLINE!’ No one called it so, it was time to celebrate!”
Added Rodriguez, “I did touch the end line, so the line referee raised her arm, but I guess the principal referee didn’t notice and we won that point. I have a copy of that match and you can totally see it - it’s funny.”
Jenny Wood had also collected 24 kills on .322 hitting for UF as the Gators out-hit Michigan State .280-.248 and finished with 98 digs to 80 for the Spartans. Val Sterk led MSU with 23 kills on .419 hitting.
Florida advanced the Final Four in Cleveland where the Gators met up with the only team that had beaten them all year - Hawai’i. The Rainbow Wahine again did what no other team could and beat Florida 3-0.
Still, it was another tremendous season for the University of Florida.
“It’s hard to put a finger on why the 1996 team was so successful,” Cheronis said. “But, maybe more than any other team we have ever had, they HATED to lose. That is what made them special. It is a rare quality in today’s player, but back then, we had a whole team of them.”
1996 Gainesville Regional
No. 7 Michigan State def. No. 8 Long Beach State 15-4, 13-15, 15-6, 15-8
No. 1 Florida def. No. 12 Ohio State 15-8, 14-16, 13-15, 15-12, 15-6
No. 1 Florida def. No. 7 Michigan State 7-15, 15-7, 15-9, 17-15
Gainesville Regional All-Tournament Team
Aurymar Rodriguez - Florida (MVP)
Jenny Wood - Florida
Val Sterk - Michigan State
Dana Cooke - Michigan State
Misty May - Long Beach State
Vanessa Wouters - Ohio State