The Florida State women’s volleyball team saw its share of growing pains during the 1996 season. With an already young squad becoming even younger due to injuries, marked improvement was overshadowed by a disappointing record.
“Any time two returning starters are out from a six-person lineup, it’s pretty difficult to win against the competition that we face,” Florida State head coach Cecile Reynaud said. “I think we could have thrown in the towel midway through the season, but we decided to stay positive and work hard and we turned things around.”
With the return of six starters, Reynaud had high hopes for the 1996 season. The season started out with two, three-game victories at home over Florida Atlantic. A much anticipated trip to the Purdue Invitational proved to be devastating for the Lady Seminoles. Returning starters Susan Johnson and Susan Hawks, both middle hitters, suffered injuries that would not only affect the team at the tournament, but for the rest of the season as well. Hawks, who suffered a knee injury, had to undergo two surgeries to repair the damage. She saw action in just 12 matches. Johnson, who was sidelined with an ankle injury, played in just seven matches.
However, the loss of these two players enabled younger, less-experienced players to step up. Senior Patty Diamond, a two-year starter, returned for her final season expecting to assume the starting role as the team’s setter. Little did she know that three matches into the season, her responsibilities would dramatically change. Diamond, the lone senior, was moved to the middle hitter position and although a veteran on the team, she was suddenly a rookie on the floor.
“Patty was our most valuable player at the end of the year because of the role that she had to play,” Reynaud said. “She had done some setting, played on the right side and then she had move to the middle and play a position that she had never really played. She was a true team player.”
The squad made the trip to North Carolina to take on the Tar Heels and Wolfpack. The Tribe pounced on the North Carolina Tar Heels early and held on to a 15-11, 16-14, 6-15 and 15-8 victory. Freshman middle hitter Aisha Thornton tallied eight blocks and 11 kills while sophomores Holly Schneider and LaToya Presberry led the Florida State offensive attack, notching 20 and 15 kills, respectively. With 26 kills, Presberry continued to dominate and she led the team to another league victory the following day at NC State. Presberry’s outstanding play earned her Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Week honors. Through the two matches, she posted a .378 hitting percentage and recorded double-doubles in both matches with 15 kills and 16 digs vs. UNC and 26 kills and 21 digs vs. the Wolfpack.
The winning continued at the friendly confines of Tully Gym when the Lady Seminole turned in a repeat performance against North Carolina and NC State. Looking for their first conference sweep of the season, the Lady Seminoles did just that. This time it was Thornton who turned it up to lead Florida State to victory. In the process, she earned ACC Rookie of the Week honors tallying 4.4 kills per game while hitting .272. She posted 22 kills, two aces and three blocks in the North Carolina win.
Several players had standout performances throughout the season. Schneider, last season’s MVP, performed at a consistent level throughout the year and ranked second on the team in kills and digs. In FSU’s second win over NC State, Schneider recorded a career-high 31 kills while hitting a match-high .528. Presberry, who moved from left side to right side this year, was as previously mentioned, a force for the team. Her 438 kills and 345 digs were tops on the squad. Midway through the season, freshman setter Kensy Zulueta solidified a spot in the starting rotation. She dished out a season-high 70 assists at NC. State, just four shy of tying the Florida State record for assists in a match. Thornton’s 6-2 frame quickly allowed her to become a feared blocker in the ACC. She ranked first on the team and fifth in the conference in blocks per game with a 1.15 average. In all, she totalled 120 blocks for the Lady Seminoles this season and was recognized when she was selected to the ACC All-Freshman team.
“Holly, LaToya and Laura Arnold were our primary passers all year and worked very hard to give our setters something to work with,” Reynaud said. “Holly and Laura provided very steady passing and LaToya is just a very dynamic and athletic player. She’s a great jumper and exciting to watch. It was hard for me to believe sometimes that she was just a sophomore.”
FSU picked up a pair of victories over Georgia and Troy State in their final weekend of the regular season, but lost in the first round of the ACC Tournament.