Dec. 23, 2011
By FSU volleyball sports information director Steve Stone
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Seminoles.com) - In a year like never before for the Florida State volleyball team, the 2011 season can be summed up in one word: historical.
FSU volleyball's unforgettable campaign was a season of firsts, with none standing out more than the Seminoles' incredible march to their first-ever NCAA national semifinals. It was a journey that was nearly unpredictable, yet as the gritty bunch blossomed throughout the year they knew the possibility was within their reach.
Were the 2011 Seminoles the most talented group in school history? Who knows. Did they achieve the best record in school history? No, the 2009 squad that went to the NCAA Elite Eight ended up with a tremendous 31-3 mark. But what this group of Seminoles showed was how far a cohesive unit can go when it works in sync and executes well enough in some of the game's most crucial aspects.
Through a majority of the season, FSU was a talented, well-oiled machine on defense with one of the most fearsome blocking duos in the program's 44-year history. The Seminoles finished seventh nationally with nearly three blocks per set, and opponents knew whenever they went up against FSU they'd have to figure out ways to hit around the vaunted block of sophomore Ashley Neff and junior Sareea Freeman. The exceptional performers combined for 353 total blocks, including Neff's 197 which is the sixth-most in school history and the most nationally.
If the defense was enough to provoke headaches by the opposition, FSU's offense soared this season with another entertaining pair that included senior outside hitters Jekaterina Stepanova and Visnja Djurdjevic. The left-side players possessed different styles of attacking in carrying the offense, where Stepanova and her team-best 421 kills were based more on aggression and power while Djurdjevic also had plenty of strength but was craftier with her shots. Together, both players were the perfect compliments to a unit that finished 20th nationwide with a .259 hitting percentage.
In hindsight, it was the individual accomplishments of every player in head coach Chris Poole's 6-2 offense that made the season so special. Like any good team, each player specialized in a certain role and executed it to the best of their abilities. Each player's ability to step up, whether it was record-breaking redshirt freshman libero Katie Mosher's knack for keeping rallies alive or setter Duygu Duzceler's penchant for putting her hitters in great position, contributed greatly to FSU's 28-7 overall record and fourth ACC championship.
Perhaps this upstart squad's dreams and aspirations should have been realized from the start. It was opening night when the Seminoles sent a message that they would not be pushed over when they swept a Kentucky squad that ended up reaching the Sweet 16. In front of a raucous Tully Gym crowd, FSU won in convincing fashion, which included a memorable 25-8 win in the second set as Neff highlighted the match with an impressive 10 blocks in just three sets of action.
FSU would go on to win the annual FSU Invitational, sweeping future NCAA postseason opponent Albany and defeating then-No. 23 Tulsa. Stepanova, who was named an AVCA Second-Team All-American this season, combined for 26 kills, 31 digs and a .339 hitting percentage in three eye-opening wins to earn tournament MVP honors.
Coming off a strong opening weekend, the Seminoles received a dose of reality when they visited a crowded Stephen O'Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla., to face the Gators. FSU was unable to get the job done, falling in three sets despite holding large leads in the second and third sets. In the end, the Seminoles never let the loss affect them as they reached a farther point in the NCAA Championship than UF for the second time in the last three years.
The Seminoles then traveled to the Delaware Invitational on Sept. 2 and faced a tough Northern Iowa squad that wound up finishing with one of the best RPI's in the nation. The match proved costly to FSU as it marked the only time the Seminoles let a two-set lead slip away, falling to UNI in five which included a 15-13 defeat in the final set. FSU got back on track with consecutive wins over Delaware and California-Irvine in three sets apiece. Against the Anteaters, Stepanova led the charge again by racking up 19 kills and a .600 hitting percentage. As a team, FSU hit .481 versus UCI, the third-highest percentage by an ACC team in 2011.
The Dayton Marriott Flyer Classic was looked at as a measuring-stick tournament to help gage where FSU stood as it wrapped up its non-conference portion of the schedule. However, the trip turned out to be a sobering experience as the Seminoles opened up with a three-set loss to Michigan, allowing the Wolverines to hit .410 in the match to mark the highest percentage by an opponent since Poole took over in 2008. FSU rebounded with a quality win over then-No. 23 Dayton on the road, rallying behind Stepanova and Djurdjevic's combined 38 kills and Neff and Freeman's combined 15 blocks.
The final match of the trip turned out to be a 3-1 loss to Elite Eight squad Pepperdine, leaving FSU on a sour note as it returned to Tallahassee needing to prepare for a nationally-televised match against a difficult Miami squad that already showed wins over Oklahoma and Pepperdine.
Perhaps it was on Sept. 14 when the turning point occurred in FSU's memorable season. Playing on ESPNU in front of 1,307 fans at Tully Gym, FSU turned on the jets and got a great effort out of right-side hitter Elise Walch to sweep the Hurricanes. Walch, a Stuart, Fla., native, finished with 12 kills on 17 attacks for a .706 hitting percentage, earning ACC Player of the Week honors.
Following its win over Miami, FSU made it known that it was a force to be reckoned with. The Seminoles strung together 16 consecutive wins, becoming just the fourth team in ACC history to show a 16-0 conference record. The winning streak was the fourth-longest in school history, and it began with wins over Miami, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Duke that were in straight sets.
One of FSU's landmark wins in the conference came on Oct. 7 at UNC, when both teams entered the match with identical 5-0 ACC records. Falling behind in the first set, the Seminoles rattled off three consecutive set victories as it was powered by 20 team blocks. The next match, FSU won a hard-fought five-setter at N.C. State behind an amazing 26 team blocks.
The Seminoles' entertaining run in the ACC came to an end when they fell at Duke on Nov. 13, losing in five sets at Cameron Indoor Stadium. However, FSU would earn its fourth ACC championship the following weekend on the road, getting past Clemson in front of an ESPN3.com audience in four sets and winning over Georgia Tech in four sets as well. The matches were important not only because they solidified FSU's second conference crown in the past three years, but showed its toughness in playing in front of boisterous fan bases and still coming away with wins.
FSU would then find out on the ESPNU Selection Show that it was a deserving 12th seed in the NCAA Tournament, and hosted Albany once again as well as Cincinnati. FSU cruised past the Great Danes behind Stepanova's 16 kills and .467 hitting percentage, and managed to get past a difficult Cincinnati team in a nail-biter that went to five sets in the second round. The victory sent the Seminoles to a familiar place - Minneapolis for the NCAA Sweet 16.
Awaiting the Seminoles in cold Minnesota was a fifth-seeded Purdue squad that featured one of the nation's best attackers in Ariel Turner. FSU was unfazed and turned the match around quickly after trailing 21-13 in the opening set before winning the first frame and staying in control throughout the match. Led by Mosher's 28 digs in just four sets, FSU recorded a season-high 104 digs and took the Boilermaker attack out of their game to win convincingly.
FSU's win meant another shot at an Elite Eight opponent, where the program reached two seasons ago before falling to host Minnesota. This time, fourth-seeded Iowa State stood opposite the Seminoles. Once again, FSU showed its mettle by winning the opening set before the Cyclones tied up the match with a 25-23 win in set two. Both teams dueled to an incredible five-set affair, but FSU came out on top as it was guided by Stepanova's 20 kills and Freeman's double-double of 12 kills and 10 blocks. In what will be one of the most memorable plays in FSU volleyball history, Djurdjevic delivered a match-ending service ace to send FSU into euphoria as it reached the NCAA national semifinals in San Antonio in the Alamodome. Indeed, FSU was headed to collegiate volleyball's biggest stage.
In its 14th NCAA appearance in school history, FSU volleyball finally got over the hump and reached the final round of four. The Seminoles were the lone double-digit seed, as they joined ninth-seeded UCLA, seventh-seeded USC and third-seeded Illinois in San Antonio. FSU was looking to become the lowest seed to ever win an NCAA championship, hoping to eclipse No. 11 Stanford's feat in 2004.
Despite enjoying an unforgettable and unpredictable journey to the national semifinals, FSU was unable to get past NCAA champion UCLA as it fell in three sets. The loss ended a record-breaking season that put a charge into North Florida as the team's thorough coverage on television networks and newspapers signified just how special the program, let alone the season, had become.
FSU's fan base truly wrapped around the team in 2011, as the Seminoles finished with an unblemished 12-0 record in front of the home faithful (not including tournament wins over Albany and Cincinnati). Tully Gym emerged as an intimidating place to play on Friday nights, with the average attendance reaching into the 1,000s for ACC matches. With fans packing the gym and FSU's prominent play unfolding throughout the year, the times show that the Seminole volleyball program is becoming one of the next great things to hit the Tallahassee area.
Besides its local impact, FSU volleyball entered the season looking to make a statement to the rest of the nation after finishing the 2010 season on a difficult note. With a collective group determined to prove to the state and nation just how strong Seminole volleyball is, several goals were achieved in a momentous journey that no fan will ever forget. Indeed, 2011 was an exceptional year for Poole and his gang. It was one that FSU fans will savor, one that could be a starting point for an incredible run in the upcoming years.
And undoubtedly, the recent season is one that will be put in historical perspective several years down the road. The season was truly one for the books.