GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Moments like these are always the toughest. They are tough on the coach. They are tough on the players. Heck, not that anyone cares, but they can be uncomfortable too on the people asking the questions of those with tears, long faces and cracking voices.
It was like that in the press room at the O’Connell Center late Saturday night.
The Gators and Illinois both walked into the arena a few hours earlier with big dreams swimming around in their heads. A berth to the Final Four was on the line.
Florida had not been there since 2003. Illinois’ last trip came in 1988.
If a Martian had walked into the room at the same time as Gators seniors Kelly Murphy and Kristy Jaeckel did, it would have known immediately which team lost.
Murphy and Jaeckel served as the heart and soul of the 2011 Gators volleyball team. They talked all season about how special it would be if they could somehow close out their career with that elusive trip to the Final Four, possibly even a national championship.
But when the tournament pairings came out, the Gators weren’t even seeded. They then had to travel halfway across the country to open the tournament in Iowa. The Gators played some of their best volleyball during their stay, defeating Missouri in the first round and then knocking off host Northern Iowa to make it back home for the Gainesville Regional.
In Friday night’s Sweet 16 win over Michigan, Murphy and Jaeckel shined in Florida’s sweep.
And then came Saturday and a 3-1 loss (22-25, 25-23, 14-25, 20-25) to an oversized Illinois team loaded with tall and talented players, including Colleen Ward, once a Gator. Ward was the star Saturday – earning Most Outstanding Player of the region – with a match-high 23 kills and .500 hitting percentage.
An Illinois native, Ward played at UF in 2008 and ’09 before transferring to her home state’s flagship program for her final two years.
“She was just on fire,’’ Illinois coach Kevin Hambly said. “I think she enjoyed coming back here. She likes this place. She has good memories of this place. She wanted to perform well for the fans that watched her for a couple of years. It’s a little weird, though. I knew it was weird for her. I think she handled it great.’’
While Ward added a memorable night to her college career, the Gators will have a different kind of memory. Those Final Four dreams were dashed and for Murphy and Jaeckel, two of the better players to come through Florida coach Mary Wise’s program, they played their final match in orange and blue.
Both tried to put the moment in perspective behind puffy eyes.
“For me, I couldn’t be prouder of the way we fought,’’ Jaeckel said. “Going into the tournament, we may have not been a seeded team, but we went out and fought as hard as we could and I think we played the best volleyball we have all season.’’
There is no arguing Jaeckel’s point. With the stakes the highest, the Gators played their best.
It took an Illinois team that won’t surprise anyone by hoisting a national trophy title in San Antonio next week to end the Gators’ memorable run.
Illinois’ tall front line of Ward (6-foot-2), Anna Dorn (6-3), Michelle Bartsch (6-3), Liz McMahon (6-6) and Erin Johnson (6-3) provided a steel curtain at the net. Illinois also served and passed well, committing only five hitting errors in the final two sets.
The Gators regained the momentum by winning the second set, but the Fighting Illini quickly stole it back with a dominant third set and closed out the match with a steady fourth set.
“We were playing catch up,’’ Wise said. “The difference was the first contact, but man, did we battle. They just never really gave us a chance. They made very few unforced errors. That’s been sort of their method all season. We just had no answers.’’
Murphy and Jaeckel tried to find answers, Jaeckel posting a team-high 19 kills and Murphy recording the 30th triple-double of her career with 13 kills, 21 assists and 17 digs.
“The third set I thought they came out and gave it everything they had,’’ Murphy said. “We didn’t do a very good job of responding. I just have to give all the credit to them because they played so well. I don’t know what else we could have done. We couldn’t find a way to score points.’’
The ride ended for the Gators on Saturday. For Murphy and Jaeckel, their careers ended. Still, they made it to the Elite Eight, somewhere they had never been until a memorable postseason run.
When asked what the two have meant to her program the past four years, Wise’s emotions said as much as her words.
“Irreplaceable. Not just their talents, but the people, the quality,’’ Wise said. “I can’t say enough great things about these to, to go out swinging. These two just played awesome. Unfortunately we didn’t get every Gators A-game. They have given everything possible throughout their careers. We’ve had a pretty good run.
“Sorry it had to end.’’
So is Murphy, who will go down as one of the most accomplished players in school history.
“Everyone found a way to step it up [in the tournament,’’ she said. “We made it past the Sweet 16 which is something I haven’t been able to do until this year. It was a lot of fun to play with this team.’’
In a difficult moment, in the wake of a disappointing loss, Wise was asked to try and sum up the ride this team took her on.
She recalled a story at the start of the season. The Gators, fresh off going 20-0 in the SEC a year ago and advancing to the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive season – losing to Purdue – met with the media in August to preview this season.
The second question mentioned the word “disappointing’’ in reference to Florida’s 29-2 season a year ago.
Wise hopes that is not the case next year at media day. Not after the Gators made it past the Sweet 16 and one win from the Final Four. Not with the memories this group created in the postseason.
“I’m thinking one more win makes all the difference in the world,’’ she said. “It was a great season.’’
Two of the biggest reasons why had just left the room, tears still fresh in their eyes but with nothing to hang their heads about.