Tuesday December 5, 20062003 Gainesville Regional: A Look Back
The 2003 Florida team celebrates after sweeping Penn State
The 2003 Florida team celebrates after sweeping Penn State
By Brett Bladergroen
The 2003 NCAA Regional that was held in Gainesville played host to arguably the greatest women’s volleyball team the University of Florida had ever seen. At the beginning of the year Mary Wise set the bar high for the Gators and wanted their objective to be getting back to the Final Four. She forbade her coaches and players from saying the word “Dallas” - the site of the 2003 Final Four.
The Gators entered tournament play that season, after having won the SEC regular season title for a 13th straight time. Their only loss came in a season opening defeat at the hands of Southern California in the NACWAA State Farm Classic held in Honolulu, Hawai’i. After the season opening State Farm Classic, the Gators went on the win 27 matches in a row - all of which without losing a single game in the process (an NCAA Record) and went undefeated against the SEC for the ninth year in a row.
One significant loss the Gators did suffer during the season occurred when they lost one of the best middle blockers in school history in senior Benavia Jenkins. Jenkins was injured during a match in the middle of the season that ended her playing career at Florida. Her defensive presence was truly missed for the remainder of the 2003 season.
Florida was led during the 2003 campaign by arguably the greatest player in school history, Aury Cruz, a three-time first team All-American. Cruz led the Gators in kills (519), digs (403), aces (62), and attacks (1,220) during the year and she also broke the career records for kills (1,815) and attacks (4,096).
The first match of the 2003 Gainesville Regional pitted Penn State (30-4) against Kansas State (30-4) and featured All-Americans on both sides of the net. The Nittany Lions were led all season long by their All-American tandem of middle blocker Cara Smith and setter Sam Tortorello. The Wildcats relied on the outstanding play of their All-American middle blocker Lauren Goehring. After dropping the first game of the match, Penn State rallied to take the next three games to win the match and advance into the next round. The Nittany Lions were once again led by their All-Americans as Smith had 10 kills and recorded six block assists and Tortorello recorded 44 assists. Opposite hitter Erin Iceman also pitched in with 14 kills on .300 hitting and libero Kaleena Walters added 24 digs for Penn State to lead them past the Wildcats (12-30, 30-27, 30-21, 31-29). Kansas State led in every statistical category but just couldn’t manage to get the win. Libero Laura Downey-Wallace also set the all-time record for digs in a Gainesville Regional match with 30 and Goehring recorded 14 kills on .367 hitting. Setter Gabby Guerre recorded a triple double with 10 kills, 51 assists and 19 digs on .350 hitting but it just wasn’t enough to lead the Wildcats past the Nittany Lions.
The second match of the regional saw the host team, Florida (33-1) take on Colorado State (30-4) in front of 3,163 fans. The Gators continued their stellar play that they had been displaying all year long and swept the Rams (30-13, 30-22, 30-26). Florida was once again led by Cruz and her 12 kills on .303 hitting. She also had four service aces and 10 digs with her ace total tying for second all-time in a Gainesville Regional match. Middle blocker Sherri Williams put on a display of her own with 11 kills on .529, the fifth highest hitting percentage in a Gainesville Regional match. Colorado State’s Katie Jo Shirley recorded 14 kills on .348 hitting but it just wasn’t enough to lead the Rams to victory on that day. The win for the Gators sent them into the Elite Eight to square off against Penn State.
“The atmosphere before, during and after the Penn State match was a little surreal,” Williams said. “Before the match, we did our pre-game cheers the same, but they seemed a little more subdued or focused. We all looked at each other and collectively, without speaking, we knew it was ‘time.”
Florida continued its great play and prolonged its winning streak by sweeping Penn State (30-21, 30-24, 30-16) before a crowd of 3,175 fans. The Gators were led by a pair of double-double performances from Cruz and outside hitter Jane Collymore. Cruz had another spectacular evening with 14 kills and 21 digs and Collymore added 15 kills and 16 digs. Opposite hitter Jacque Robinson pitched in with 11 kills on .458 hitting. The win sent Florida to the Final Four for the second year in a row and the seventh time in school history.
“Trying to stay calm before the last two points was almost unbearable,” Williams said. “After the win, Mary finally said ‘We are going to Dallas.’
After Wise said “Dallas,” it was everybody else’s turn.
“We knew we were very good, but the coaches made sure that we knew that a trip to the Final Four was not guaranteed,” Williams said. “But, with 101 straight game wins at that point, I think we earned the right to say ‘Dallas.’”
Once in Texas, the Gators won their national semifinal match-up with perennial powerhouse Hawaii (30-28, 30-28, 23-30, 30-28) in a hard fought battle and in the process their string of consecutive games won streak was snapped at 103. The win sent Florida to the national championship contest and a rematch with the only team that defeated the Gators during the season, Southern California. The Gators took the initial game of the match but then they proceeded to drop the next three and the match to the Trojans and had to settle for national runners-up in 2003, the most successful year to date in Florida volleyball history.
2003 Gainesville Regional
No. 11 Penn State def. No. 5 Kansas State 12-30, 30-27, 30-21, 31-29
No. 3 Florida def. No. 12 Colorado State 30-13, 30-22, 30-26
No. 3 Florida def. No. 11 Penn State 30-21, 30-24, 30-16
Gainesville Regional All-Tournament Team
Aury Cruz - Florida (MVP)
Jane Collymore - Florida
Lauren Moscovic - Florida
Sherri Williams - Florida
Erin Iceman - Penn State
Gabby Guerre - Kansas State