by Cory Walton
The 2006 season was just
another ordinary year for the University
of Florida volleyball
team. That is, if ordinary means a 30-win season, two All-America selections,
the Southeastern Conference Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year Awards
and school records for kills and digs per game.
UF entered tournament play
with a 28-2 record, falling only to eventual national semifinalist UCLA and South Carolina, and promptly defeated Florida A&M and Arizona
State in the opening
rounds of the NCAA Championship to earn its 15th regional berth in 16 years.
The Gators didn’t have to travel far to reach their regional site – several of
the team members actually just had to leave their dorm rooms and cross Stadium
Road – as they had been chosen before the season to host their third NCAA
Regional in the last five years.
The opening match of the
2006 Gainesville Regional featured top-ranked and top-seeded Nebraska against No. 16 San Diego. Junior
Sarah Pavan, the 2006 American Volleyball Coaches Association Player of the
Year, paced the Huskers to a comfortable 3-0 (30-21, 30-20, 30-15) victory over
the Toreros with 15 kills and five total blocks. NU outhit San Diego, .385-.071, and collected more
kills (47-36), aces (7-0), digs (43-34) and blocks (11.0-2.0) to achieve the
18th 30-win season in school history. Kristen Carlson led the Toreros with 10
kills and nine digs on the night.
Friday’s nightcap pitted a
pair of top-10 national seeds – No. 8 Minnesota and the ninth-seeded Gators –
in a battle for a spot in the regional final. The opening game was close in the
early stages, with neither team holding more than a two-point lead before the
media timeout. After the break, the Gophers moved out in front by a score of
16-13, and maintained that margin until Florida
used a timeout at the 21-18 mark. UM held on to its momentum during the
stoppage, building its lead to 25-19 before the Gators were able to cut the
margin to four behind a pair of kills from junior outside hitter Marcie
however, captured five of the game’s last seven points
to take the opener, 30-23.
The action was also tight
at the beginning of the second game, as the Gators took an early 8-6 advantage
after a Minnesota
attack error. UM fought back to tie the score at 9-9, but Florida came roaring back with a 5-1 run to
make the score 14-9 and force the Gophers to call timeout. The teams sided out
until Minnesota reeled off three-straight points to pull within three at 17-14,
but they couldn’t get closer before UF went on a 3-0 run of its own to force UM
into its second timeout of the stanza. The Orange
and Blue leapt out to a 28-19 lead after the break, but Minnesota exploded for six-consecutive
points to narrow the gap to three. The Gators responded with a kill by redshirt
freshman middle blocker Kristina Johnson to force game point, and a UM
ball-handling error gave UF the game, 30-25.
The Gators scored the
first three points of game three to get off to a good start after the
intermission, but Minnesota came storming back with an 8-1 run to grab a
four-point lead. Florida
rallied to within a point at 10-9, but the Gophers scored four of the next five
points to move out in front by a count of 14-10. Florida, however, refused to quit and
stormed out to a 5-0 run that sent the action into the media timeout with the
hosts on top, 15-14. Minnesota
fought back to eventually take a 21-19 lead and force a UF timeout, and the
Gators came flying out of the break to pull within a point at 22-21. UM
answered with a 3-0 run to build its lead back up to four and prompt another
Florida timeout, but the rest didn’t help the Gators as Minnesota took
five-consecutive points to wrap up game three, 30-21.
Minnesota couldn’t have asked for a better start to game
four, racing out to a 10-5 advantage, but the Gators came roaring back with a
4-0 run to pull within a point. UM wasn’t fazed by the Florida onslaught, and ripped off a 4-0 run
of its own to yet again put a five-point gap between the two squads. UF chipped
away at the lead, eventually climbing back to 15-13, but the Gophers came up
with a 4-1 run to force a Florida
timeout with the count at 23-18. Florida
narrowed the gap to the slimmest of margins at 25-24, but the Gophers took four
of the next five rallies to set up match point at 29-25. Johnson managed
another kill on the next series to bring UF within three, but Minnesota finished the job on its next
opportunity to advance to the regional final.
The next night’s match saw
Minnesota shoot out of the gate and grab a 2-0
lead on a stunned Nebraska
team, but the Huskers were able to rally for the five-game win behind 21 kills
and 17 digs from outside hitter Jordan Larson, who was named MVP of the
Gainesville Regional. Nebraska, which also got
20 kills from Pavan in the regional final, went to win its third national title
after defeating Stanford in front of a pro-Husker crowd in Omaha, Neb.
Though the 2006
Gainesville Regional didn’t turn out like Florida
players, coaches and fans would have liked, the experience was one that the UF
program and the Gainesville
community won’t soon forget.