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Tuesday November 20, 20072006 Gainesville Regional: A Look Back

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 Hampton. Minnesota, 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.

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