By Bob Thomas – Seminoles.ocm
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Four months ago the Florida State volleyball team was virtually a group of strangers, with nine newcomers on the 17-player roster when camp opened.
They aren’t strangers any longer. In fact, the (No.8/6) Seminoles are headed to the NCAA Seattle Regional as one of the nation’s most dangerous teams after sweeping Alabama 25-18, 25-22, 25-19, Friday night at Tully Gym to secure their fourth NCAA Sweet 16 appearance in six years.
A force at the net offensively behind the hitting of Nicole Walch and Sarah Burrington, and relentless defensively against Alabama’s athletic attack, the Seminoles (30-2) rattled off their sixth consecutive sweep. It was the kind of performance that makes it difficult to comprehend how quickly Poole’s club has come together.
“It’s amazing,” Poole said following the victory. “We’ve talked about all the new players we’ve had, but people wouldn’t even know that. There are nine players out there who weren’t even here last fall. The chemistry and work that they’ve put in since we’ve started that first day of August practice has been phenomenal.
“This is a team that continues to work hard on and off the court.”
Senior libero Katie Mosher, FSU’s all-time leader in digs, was marveling at what the team has accomplished after the Seminoles collected their 29th consecutive home victory against the Crimson Tide.
“[Last] January if you had asked any of us, we were definitely nervous,” Mosher said. “We lost some players. We are just so fortunate that we got the players that we did. You don’t know how we’re going to blend together.
“What we have in common that makes us so good, is we’re so focused and we all have the same goal of winning the national championship.”
That was evident Friday night when the Seminoles unleashed the second-best hitting performance of the season – and 11th-best in Poole’s seven seasons – by converting at a .427 clip. Walch led the way with 13 kills and Burrington added 11, but FSU received significant contributions from Katie Horton, Mercedes Vaughn, Kiara Wright and Milica Kubura, who combined for 19 kills.
Mosher did her part with 10 digs, while Sarah Wickstrom dished out 23 assists and Hailey Luke passed out 15 more.
“We have so much depth and so much confidence in everyone on our team,” Walch said. “We just want to take it one game at a time right now. Going to the Sweet 16 two years in a row, we have gained respect as a volleyball program.”
The Seminoles have earned that respect in a variety of ways:
• Friday’s win secured the eighth 30-win victory in program history;
• They have responded to back-to-back losses at Duke and Carolina with six 3-0 sweeps in a row;
• With one more victory they will be assured of nothing worse than a share of the highest single-season winning percentage in program history.
And of course, they’re headed back to Sweet 16; a place where no FSU team had been until Poole’s arrival in 2008.
“We’ve actually been to the Sweet 16 four of the last six years, which as a program, it is certainly something I wanted to do when I got here,” Poole said. “That says a lot, because there are many, many programs that never get to the Sweet 16. I feel like we’re finally in place to where people are starting to respect us at a national level and expect us to be good.”
The Seminoles set the tone for their trip to Seattle midway through the opening set, rattling off six unanswered points with Horton in the service position to break open a tightly-contest contest en route to a 25-18 win. Consecutive kills by Burrington turned a one-point deficit into a 12-11 lead, which ballooned to 16-11 behind a Horton ace and a block and kill by Walch.
“I was just thinking, ‘Get it in and keep it going,’” Horton said.
In a set that saw nine ties and five early lead changes, the Crimson Tide could never gain enough traction to get closer than four points the rest of the way.
“When you’re in that situation it’s like two boxers going at each other to see who can knock the other one down first, to get that first lead,” Poole said. “They were a great team. We were testing each other. It was close there. When we had that breakout and we made that move it kind of set the tone for the rest of the match. Our confidence swelled and certainly we put an exclamation point that we were capable of stepping up when we needed.”
FSU responded again in the second set, which see-sawed back-and-forth and was deadlocked at 22-all when Walch came through with a big kill and Horton dumped a shot over the ‘Bama defense for a 24-22 edge. Wright and Kubura finished it off, tag-teaming on a block for the 25-22 victory.
“We just calmed down when we needed to,” said Wright. “We realize when we’re getting a little too hyped, or we’re getting down. We just focus on each other and do what we needed to do and just get it done.
“It’s more important that we trust each other to get that contribution from each player…Our chemistry off the court helps everything on the court. Knowing that everyone has those great moments in games, and everyone can turn it on at any point, I’m just excited so see everyone turn it on at the same time.”
The third-set action featured more of the same as the teams as the match was tied eight times before Walch and Kubura delived back-to-back kills for a 17-14 lead that the Tide could not overcome, committing seven scoring errors in the decisive set. FSU pulled away and Burrington finished off a Wickstrom pass for the final kill and the 25-19 win.
“For us to come out and hit 43 percent against a very good Alabama team – a very athletic Alabama team – that certainly says a lot about their focus,” Poole said. “For the most part we limited them on the things we wanted to. We tweaked our defense a little bit and I thought the girls did a great job making the covers that they needed to do and did a great job keeping us in our offense.
“It’s very critical that we continue to be aggressive defensively and continue to run down balls. We made some saves over the last two nights that certainly bodes well for the future and shows what we’re capable of doing.”
Florida State will play either Arizona, Yale, BYU or Seton Hall in the Regional Semifinal on Dec. 12.
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