A change in strategy sends the Gators confidently to their sixth NCAA semifinal match.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2002
GAINESVILLE -- Everyone from the coaching staff to former players has said this season's Florida volleyball team, with its talent and athleticism, has the best chance to give coach Mary Wise her first national championship in 12 years with the Gators.
Now they'll get a chance to prove it.
Led by juniors Aury Cruz and Jacque Robinson, and the surprising play of sophomore outside hitter Michelle Chatman, Florida defeated Washington State 3-1 (27-30, 30-19, 30-25, 30-16) in the NCAA East Region final Saturday afternoon at the O'Connell Center.
The Gators play USC, a 3-0 winner over Pepperdine, on Thursday in the NCAA Final Four at the New Orleans Arena.
This will be the Gators' sixth trip to the Final Four, their first since 1998. But, Wise said, this one feels different.
"Today we sent a statement," she said. "We realize Washington State has played in the Pac-10, played all sorts of great competition and they are senior-dominated. The big question going in was would our athletes be good enough to counter their experience? And the answer today was yes. ... This was not the nail-biting cliffhanger 'we're lucky to be there' match. We sent a statement. That's why this one was so good."
Florida had four players with double-digit kills and Nicole McCray had a career-high four blocks. Cruz, a national player of the year candidate, had a game-high 24 kills. Robinson had 17 kills and McCray added 15.
"We didn't have a lot of answers for Cruz and Robinson," WSU coach Cindy Fredrick said. "We lost to a really good team tonight and there's no embarrassment in that."
Washington State (24-8) took the first game behind the solid hitting of senior LaToya Harris (11 kills, six digs) and outside hitter Adrian Hankoff (17 kills, two aces). So the Gators changed strategy. A hard-hitting team, Florida resorted to soft-hit kills and tips that barely made it over the net, which caught the Cougars off guard. They never regrouped.
"We were expecting Florida to come at us," Hankoff said. "We watched them last night and I don't think they tipped the ball one time."
With WSU neutralizing Florida's Benavia Jenkins, Chatman filled in admirably with 15 kills and a career-high 19 digs.
Chatman, Cruz and Robinson were selected to the all-tournament team with WSU's Hankoff, Harris and Victoria Prince.
When the match ended, the Gators draped themselves in Mardi Gras beads. They have never won a match in the Final Four.