By Mike Vietti
It was a season that most Florida fans can remember with one word: Jeni.
Well, make that two words: Jeni and Jenny.
Wait, actually, three words are necessary: Jeni, Jenny and Jenni.
For those unfamiliar, that’d be Jeni Jones, Jenny Manz and Jenni Keene - the trio known as “The Three Jenny’s.” Or “The Three Jeni’s” Or “The Three Jenni’s.”
The University of Florida volleyball team was led in 1998 by three athletes with the same name and three different spellings (and, one could argue it should’ve been a quad with setter Jen Sanchez on the team).
Perhaps the names confused opponents because the fourth-ranked Gators cruised into the Gainesville Regional with a 33-2 record. Florida was accompanied by No. 6 Hawai’i (31-2), No. 10 Southern California (24-5) and No. 13 Arkansas (29-5).
The Lady Backs and Rainbow Wahine kicked off the regional with Hawai’i claiming a 15-13, 15-9, 15-9 sweep of Arkansas. Heather Bown paced the Rainbow Wahine with 19 kills on .378 hitting as Hawai’i out-hit the Lady Backs .313-.262 and finished with 74 kills to 54 for Arkansas. Veronica Lima added 16 kills on .448 hitting for Hawai’i, while Kim Storey led Arkansas with 19 kills on .516 hitting.
Oddly enough, the Gators and historical power Southern California met for the first time on the court in the second match with Florida claiming a 15-13, 12-15, 15-9, 15-9 victory in front of 2,581 fans. The Gators were able to out-block the defensive-minded Trojans 12.0-10.0, while Manz collected 19 kills and 12 digs with Keene adding 18 kills and 19 digs. Southern California was paced by All-American middle blocker Jasmina Marinkovic’s match-high 22 kills on .321 hitting.
“USC really had a senior driven team,” Jenny (Manz) Theis said. “I couldn’t ever forget playing against Jasmina Marinkovic. She was an amazing athlete and definitely made kills a tough thing to come by.”
The stage was set for a Hawai’i-Florida matchup in the regional final. The Rainbow Wahine had been the only team to defeat Florida during the 1996 season (twice) and the Gators were aware of that when they took the court.
“I think that we were hungry, but maybe not to get back at Hawai’i,” Manz said. “It was more of a hunger for winning. The 1998 team was clearly a different group than the 1996 team. That said, we never forget the past, which helped fuel the fire in preparation for Hawai’i.”
The fire was doused early and often by the Rainbow Wahine, who claimed the opening two games 15-11 and 15-4. Hawai’i hit .280 and .275 in those first two games, while the Gators could only muster hitting percentages of .167 and .000.
“We didn’t even think about 1996,” Manz said. “We came out of the locker room between games two and three feeling oddly calm and confident in ourselves. Even though we were down, we just had a ‘look’ about us. We just knew that we would win - it was a confident, ‘in-the-zone’ mentality that we all shared. There wasn’t a player on the team that wasn’t feeling it. It was a truly awesome feeling that I will never forget.”
The Gators stormed back and took game three 15-10 in holding Hawa’i to .123 hitting, while UF bolstered its percentage to .231. Florida then dominated game four in a 15-4 win before again cruising in the fifth game 15-7. Keene paced UF with 22 kills with middle blockers Jones and Heather Wright combining for 30 kills and 11 blocks. Bown again led Hawai’i with 24 kills on .420 hitting, while also collecting nine blocks.
“The fans and their overwhelming support were incredible that day,” Manz said.
Florida moved on to the Final Four in Madison, Wis., where the Gators fell to Long Beach State in three games.
But, it was certainly a lengthy and fun ride provided by “The Three Jenny’s.” Or “Jeni’s.” Or “Jenni’s.”
1998 Gainesville Regional
No. 6 Hawai’i def. No. 13 Arkansas 15-13, 15-9, 15-9
No. 4 Florida def. No. 10 Southern California 15-13, 12-15, 15-9, 15-9
No. 4 Florida def. No. 6 Hawai’i 11-15, 4-15, 15-10, 15-4, 15-7