Dec. 21, 2010
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a marathon season that spans the course of three months or more, it is nearly impossible for any team to voyage through without any adverse situations. The 2010 Florida State volleyball team will be known as a unit that furthered the program’s steady rise, but perhaps more importantly, learned several valuable lessons after dealing with plenty of heartbreak throughout the season.
With the Atlantic Coast Conference coaches picking both FSU and Duke to slug it out in the preseason poll, expectations were abound despite the Seminoles losing four impressive performers from a season ago, including All-Americans Brianna Barry, Jordana Price and Mira Djuric. However, FSU backed up its praise in the beginning of the season, rolling past a talented New Mexico State squad in the season opener before defeating FIU and USF in straight sets at Tully Gym.
Although much of the team was already talking about her many on-court talents, it was at the season-opening FSU Invitational where tournament MVP Visnja Djurdjevic started turning heads. She recorded a combined 36 kills, 26 digs and a .359 hitting percentage while putting down balls in impressive fashion in FSU’s 3-0 start. The Serbia native who transferred from Tulane also was named the conference co-player of the week.
FSU got a small dose of reality at the Houston Invitational, but simultaneously put together some strong performances to go 2-1 at the invite. It began in thunderous fashion by defeating host Houston, 3-0, in what was its best offensive performance of the season with a .416 team hitting percentage. However, FSU fell in the next contest to eventual national seed Tennessee, but picked up one of its best nonconference victories of the season against Oklahoma, 3-1. The Sooners would advance to the NCAA Sweet 16 before losing to national champion Penn State.
One of the peak moments of the season came at the Kentucky Tournament, where a rematch of the 2009 Sweet 16 matchup between the Seminoles and Wildcats was imminent. FSU first defeated Kansas State in five sets on Sept. 10 behind junior Jekaterina Stepanova’s 20 kills. The Seminoles were forced to play later that evening against host Kentucky and won in another five-setter, recording 64 kills as a team and picking up a key road win against a nationally-ranked opponent at the time. FSU won the tournament the following day after defeating Virginia Commonwealth, as setter Duygu Duzceler, Stepanova and Djurjdevic were all named to the Kentucky Invitational All-Tournament Team.
Conference play proved to be a challenging slate, with several coaches saying the conference was as deep as it had been in the last 20 years. FSU got off to an auspicious start, defeating a difficult Miami team on the road behind senior Stephanie Neville’s 16 kills in 30 attacks. FSU reached its high point of the season with a No. 13 ranking by the American Volleyball Coaches Association, while a showdown at Tully Gym between eventual top seed Florida and the Seminoles loomed.
The annual state clash featured a new twist on Sept. 24 – it was the first time two Top 15 teams had ever played at Tully Gym. As a result, a raucous crowd of 1,322 packed into the Seminole home arena before watching the Gators get the best of FSU with a 3-0 win. The match-turning point came in the second set when UF climbed back from a 17-10 deficit to win the frame, 31-29.
The next two matches featured quality home wins over Virginia and Virginia Tech, allowing FSU to boast a 19-match win streak in conference play that dated back to the memorable 2009 season. The victory against the Hokies did not come easy, as Virginia Tech stormed back from a 2-0 hole and lost on a service error in a wild fifth set.
Although the short month of August and September symbolized everything that was right about the Seminoles, the month of October created some turbulent times for a team that knew how to withstand a challenge. FSU ended its September run with a five-set loss at UNC to snap its streak, but rebounded with a win at N.C. State behind Lauren Young’s career-high 12 blocks.
FSU wasn’t itself despite winning 3-1 over Clemson on Oct. 8, as Djurdjevic learned shortly before the match of a medical issue involving her family. After the Seminoles lost in straight sets to Georgia Tech the following match, and split with the following weekend with a win over Boston College and a loss at Maryland, Djurdjevic learned that her father had passed away on the trip back to Tallahassee. The insurmountable loss forced everyone to play with a chip on their shoulder after the standout outside hitter returned to Serbia for the week of the Wake Forest and Duke matches.
During that week, FSU was out of sync and lost to the Demon Deacons, 3-0, at home. Duke then entered Tully Gym as the conference leader and fellow preseason favorite, and also came on the “Paint it Pink” match. FSU once again lost the first two sets, but through the inspirational play of seniors Stephanie Neville and Jenna Romanelli as well as junior Jekaterina Stepanova, FSU pulled off a stunning, short-handed upset by coming back to win 3-2. A block by both freshman Ashley Neff and sophomore Fatma Yildirim won the heartfelt match, sending Tully Gym into A FRENZY. FSU also played its first match without returning AVCA honorable mention All-American Rachael Morgan, who missed seven more matches due to a stress fracture.
The Seminoles were hoping to rally back with the presence of Djurdjevic in its upcoming road trip, but went 1-3 in matches at Virginia Tech, Virginia, Georgia Tech and Clemson. FSU picked up its lone win with a 3-0 victory over the Yellow Jackets, but returned with a loss to the Tigers that followed with senior Neville being placed in the hospital with an irregular heartbeat.
The medical issues for the team mounted, with several student-athletes experiencing a great amount of soreness and sickness toward the end of the season. However, FSU still had its postseason hopes alive after carrying a 16-9 overall, including 8-7 in the ACC, with the 29th-best RPI. The following five-match homestand which featured high RPI teams North Carolina and Miami would be crucial toward postseason seeding.
FSU started off with perhaps its biggest win of the season, defeating the Tar Heels in five sets after nearly relinquishing a 2-0 lead. Young continued her defensive tormenting of UNC with nine blocks, while Stepanova posted two huge back-to-back kills late in the fifth set to preserve the win. FSU then looked back into mid-season form with straight-set wins over N.C. State, third-place Maryland and Boston College. The victory over B.C was significant because it marked the first time FSU had recorded three straight 20-win seasons since joining the ACC in 1991.
In a battle for third place, FSU lost in its regular-season home finale against Miami in an exciting five-set match. It was one of 12 five-setters the Seminoles played during the 2010 campaign, going 6-6. Djurdjevic had an astounding stat line against the Hurricanes, recording a season-high 25 kills and 16 digs.
After defeating Florida A&M to finish the regular season with a 21-10 overall record, FSU achieved its preseason goal of making consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since the 1997-98 seasons. The Seminoles landed a spot in the Gainesville regional, taking on Georgia Southern of the Southern Conference in the first round. FSU received a test from the Eagles, but came away with a 3-1 win behind a combined 42 kills from Neville, Stepanova and Djurdjevic. The victory marked the first time FSU reached the second round in consecutive postseason appearances.
Unfortunately, FSU’s whirlwind season came to an end in a five-set heartbreaker against No. 1 seed Florida. FSU played one of its best matches of the season in front of a boisterous crowd in Gainesville, and even held a 13-9 lead in the fifth and final set. However, momentum swung in UF’s way after an initial four-hit call in FSU’s favor was reversed by the head judge who made the initial call. Florida then stormed back to win, 17-15, in a difficult ending for a Seminole squad that overcame so much in the 2010 season.
Finishing with a 22-11 mark, FSU made even more progress in establishing itself as a well-respected program. Head coach Chris Poole continues to mold the program into not only a statewide challenger, but a contender to the rest of the country. With the valuable lessons learned on how to deal with adversity both athletically and personally, the Seminoles grew together and rallied around each other in a dramatic, twists-and-turns year. With the influx of several new faces who were forced to quickly learn the system and buy into the team concept, the 2010 Seminole volleyball season will always be considered a success on any level. With preparation already underway for next year, it is no secret to the rest of the country that FSU volleyball is standing tall and ready to make the next big step toward national prominence.