Gator Volleyball History
|2003 Gator Volleyball
You could say that 2003 was a banner year for the Florida volleyball team, and the proof is in the Lemerand Center. A national runner-up trophy, a banner for each year that the Gators represented the SEC as champions and five new banners honoring the five of the top players in UF volleyball history for their unbelievable contributions to the volleyball program - they only begin to describe how special the 2003 squad and season were.
And what makes these accomplishments even more amazing is that they were reached with a squad that was only at full strength for eight of its 38 matches in 2003. Even with seniors Jacque Robinson and Benavia Jenkins missing quite a few matches each, Head Coach Mary Wise and her staff took the Gators farther than they had ever been.
The season began with an invitation to play in the State Farm Classic presented by NACWAA in Honolulu, Hawaii. The Gators faced 2002 national champion and No. 1-ranked USC in a rematch of the 2002 national semifinal match. Florida lost that match 3-0 but rebounded quickly the next night against then-No. 15 Kansas State, defeating the Wildcats 3-1. The Gators won game four to take the match, and by winning that game, began a record-setting streak that would last longer than anyone imagined.
Florida returned home to face Rutgers, American and BYU in the Campus USA Credit Union Invitational, sweeping each team 3-0 to win the tournament. The Gators hit the skies again the next weekend, traveling to Palo Alto, Calif., for the Stanford Invitational. After sweeping then-No. 7 UC Santa Barbara 3-0, Florida did something that no other non-PAC 10 team had done since 1993 - beat Stanford at home. The Gators dominated that match, sweeping the then-No. 4 Cardinal 3-0 and not allowing them to score 20 points in two of the three games.
Florida headed back to Gainesville for the Hilton Volleyball Classic, where the Gators proceeded to sweep past Florida A&M and then-No. 20 Minnesota to head into their final non-conference tournament with an 8-1 record. In the Gators' win over Florida A&M, Benavia Jenkins broke the school record for blocks in a career, eclipsing the 14-year-old former record.
UF won the Wildcat Classic at Northwestern University with three sweeps against Chicago State, North Carolina and Northwestern. After shutting out South Florida in Tampa on Sept. 23, the Gators began the SEC portion of their season with a 12-1 record, a 12-match win streak and having won 37 consecutive games.
The Gators, who held the NCAA record for consecutive regular season conference matches won entering season, opened the league slate at home, sweeping both Alabama and Auburn 3-0. Against the Tigers, the Gators set the school record for hitting percentage in a match when they hit .603.
Florida then hit the road for the first SEC match away from the O'Connell Center, and it proved to be a memorable one. In a sweep over Georgia, four Gators tallied 10 kills or more, and Benavia Jenkins notched the 1,000th kill of her career, becoming only the second player in school history to record 1,000 kills and 500 blocks in her career.
After sweeping Tennessee at home, to extend their regular season conference win streak to 118 matches, the Gators hit the road for four straight SEC matches away from home. After sweeping Auburn and Alabama, Florida headed to Mississippi State, where it set the school record for consecutive sweeps at 18 after shutting out the Bulldogs. With a sweep of Mississippi two days later, the Gators returned home with a 20-1 record - the 13th consecutive season that Florida recorded at least 20 wins in a season.
Florida faced Kentucky, shutting them out 3-0, before taking on South Carolina on Oct. 26. That day turned out to be a memorable one, but not in the way that other days during the season had. During the first game, senior All-American, co-captain and emotional leader Benavia Jenkins went down with a knee injury. As her teammates and the fans in the O'Connell Center looked on in silence, questions began playing in many people's minds, but Aury Cruz single-handedly answered everyone's questions that day.
After watching her teammate, roommate and friend carried off the floor, Cruz picked up everyone around her and led the Gators to a sweep of South Carolina. Her 19 kills, 11 digs and nine service aces was as close to the program's first-ever triple-double as any performance in several years. Cruz's nine service aces set the school record, and her performance sent a message that the Gators were not going to fall apart on her watch.
Florida had no time to feel sorry for themselves, nor was that ever a thought in the players' and coaches' minds. Against Georgia three days later - the day after learning that Jenkins was out for the season - the Gators showed everyone their heart, character and courage by shutting out the Bulldogs. Sherri Williams stepped into the M1 role and Michelle Chatman, who had already moved from an outside hitter to a right-side hitter in the absence of Jacque Robinson, moved into the middle blocker position with only one question - what can I do to help this team?
The first true test came on Oct. 31 when Florida played at Tennessee in Thompson-Boling Arena prior to the Vols' Midnight Madness. Not only did the Gators shut out the Lady Vols, they set the national record for consecutive games won at 70 and gave Mary Wise the 500th win of her career. Wise became the fastest female coach (with Division I coaching experience only) to reach that mark.
The next test came one week later when Arkansas came into town, as both teams were undefeated in league play at 12-0. Florida quickly shut down the Lady 'Backs and, after sweeping both them and LSU, headed into the final regular season weekend of conference play knocking on the door of its 13th straight SEC title. Florida handled South Carolina in Columbia, S.C., to earn a share of the SEC title, and with a sweep of Kentucky, the Gators held the title outright. In that win over the Wildcats, Florida extended the conference regular season win streak to 130 matches and holds that record heading into the 2004 season. In addition, by shutting out all its opponents, the Gators finished the league slate without losing a game for the first time in school history.
For their efforts during the SEC season, six players were named to the All-SEC first and second teams. Aury Cruz earned her third straight SEC Player of the Year honor - the first Florida player to earn that award three consecutive seasons. Benavia Jenkins and Jane Collymore joined Cruz on the All-SEC First Team, while Sherri Williams, Lauren Moscovic and Jen Mandes were named to the All-SEC Second Team.
The Gators carried the momentum of the regular season into the SEC Tournament, sweeping Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas, respectively, to win their 11th SEC Tournament under Mary Wise. Not surprisingly, Aury Cruz was named the tournament's MVP, while Jane Collymore and Lauren Moscovic joined her on the all-tournament team. In addition, Cruz became the Florida all-time kills leader in the match against Arkansas.
Florida then enjoyed a trip to Puerto Rico, where the players and staff were able to spend some time with the Cruz and Mandes families. After a Thanksgiving dinner at the Cruz home, the Gators went back to work, playing two exhibition matches against the Puerto Rican national team. Mary Wise and her staff couldn't have asked for better competition to keep their players sharp for the upcoming NCAA Tournament, as the Gators defeated the national team 3-1 on back-to-back nights.
The Gators returned home and learned that they would enter the NCAA Tournament as the third seed and that they would host both the first and second rounds and the regional. In the first weekend of play, Florida swept Georgia Southern and Central Florida to advance to the regional semifinal. Against Georgia Southern, the Gators hit .427 - the second highest percentage in NCAA Tournament action in Florida history. The Gators' 17 blocks against UCF tied for the second most by a Gator team in an NCAA Tournament match. At that point, Florida had extended the NCAA-record streak for consecutive games won to an almost unbelievable 97 games.
The Gators welcomed Penn State, Kansas State and Colorado State into the O'Connell Center for the East Regional. Florida jumped out to an 11-0 lead to begin its regional semifinal match against Colorado State behind the serving of Aury Cruz, whose four service aces in the match tied her for the second most in an NCAA Tournament match. The Gators handled the Rams and won the match 3-0 to advance to the regional final against Penn State. After sweeping the Nittany Lions, Florida advanced to its second consecutive and seventh overall national semifinal match. For the first time in school history, the Gators advanced to the Final Four without losing a game, and Aury Cruz was named the East Region MVP.
The Gators made history when they defeated Hawaii 3-1 in the national semifinal. Not only was it the first time that a Florida volleyball team had advanced to the national championship match, but Mary Wise became the first female head coach to lead her team to the national title match. The Rainbow Wahine snapped Florida's streak of consecutive games won after winning game three, but the record now stands at 105 - a record that may not be broken for a very long time.
The Gators came out firing on all cylinders in game one of the national championship match with USC, but the Women of Troy would eventually defeat Florida 3-1, ending an unbelievable ride for the Gators.
In a season of records broken, streaks extended, players and coaches honored, one thing is certain. Even with all the adversity thrown their way, the Gators made the 2003 season an extraordinary one.
All photos by Jim Burgess/gatorphotos.com except the team photo in Puerto Rico (Arlisa Hagan).
Volleyball Records Tied, Set or Broken in 2003
@ - tied record